"We enjoy your films. Particularly the early funny ones." So said the aliens in Stardust Memories when Woody Allen started questioning them about the meaning of life. If Elvis Costello was to be visited by the same extra terrestrials, they would no doubt tell him, in unnerving vibrato voices, "We enjoy your album. Particularly the early angry ones."
Costello and Allen, apart from the fact they have looked like bespectacled geeks for much of their lives, share a lot of common ground. They're idiosyncratic in their chosen fields. People come to expect certain things from a Woody Allen film or an Elvis Costello album, yet they both doggedly follow their own must. There are the classic, defining pieces of work — Manhattan, Annie Hall/This Year's Mode, Get Happy!! There are the ambitious experiments which somehow turn them into something else altogether — Zelig/imperial Bedroom. And there are the ones which only their mothers would love — September/Goodbye Cruel World.
More importantly, the two of them are icons. And that means they have a problem. If they venture from the perceived norm, the critics maul them for being arty and pretentious. If they revisit old stomping ground, they're seen as treading the same territory and resting on their laurels.
"I'm beginning to think that the audience is much more curious than the critics," says Costello, on the line from his home outside of Dublin. "Critics like me to stick to the script. and when I don't, I get beaten up for it. The public doesn't give a shit. They simply pick and choose what falls on their ear. They ignore one record and buy the next one. They're not watching it as part of some big master plan."
He points out that Blood And Chocolate, which was heralded as a raw, howling return to form in 1986, "didn't sell anything," whereas Spike which received lukewarm reviews as a muddled collection which stretched too far, is by far his best selling album in its initial period of release.
For someone who doesn't look at the big master plan, he intimately knows his figures, his relationship with the media, and the perception afforded each stage of his career. He jokingly refers to the Mighty Like A Rose album as his "beard years," and is more than willing to pore over his past in minute detail. This is understandable, as he is progressively re-issuing his entire back catalogue, adding extra tracks and out-takes from the vaults, and writing sleeve notes about the songs, recording sessions and his frame of mind at the time.
It's been an education for the man who created all this music. Upon delving back into Armed Forces, which the history books have pegged as a slickly produced affair following on from his angry first two albums, he couldn't believe how raw and punchy it sounded.
His perception of Trust changed for the better, mainly because he was just listening to the music rather than being immersed in the circumstances surrounding the recording.
"The records obviously sound different, because I don't sit around listening to my own records all the time," he points out with a chuckle. "I hear them with years elapsing in between. Actually, I've got the uneasy task of writing about Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World for the early 1995 re-release, and to my ears they're records which haven't dated as attractively as some of the others."
Still, despite the at-odds production and fussy song structures, Punch The Clock did contain two classics in "Shipbuilding" and "Pills And Soap," and Costello feels that the extra material on both these albums will surprise a lot of people.
The big question — if Elvis Costello was shipped off to an island with only three of his albums, which ones would he choose? He names This Year's Model ("because it doesn't sound like old pop music, but something that just happened") and King Of America ("because it was a big adventure") without hesitation. Number three is more problematic. He likes his most recent release, Brutal Youth, but wonders if that's because it's the last thing he's done. And he gives honorable mentions to Trust and The Juliet Letters because he'd want something completely different if he was stranded for a long time. Hedging his bets, he adds that he could have included Spike or Mighty Like A Rose for the same reason.
All of this is hypothetical, of course, as Costello wouldn't have time to disappear into a Pacific archipelago these days. He has taken over his own management, after an amicable split with the man who gave him his famous first name back in 1977, Jake Riviera. Early next year he's releasing an album of covers, featuring songs from Bob Dylan, Howlin' Wolf, The Supremes and The Kinks. In May and June he'll be co-writing the music for Jake's Progress, the latest television series from Alan Bleasdale, the man behind GBH.
Then there's the continuing re-issues to coordinate, and the recording of a new studio album, not to mention more touring with re-formed sparring partners, The Attractions. He'd quite like to bring them down to this part of the world again, because, as he points out, "you've heard some fairly raggedy versions of the Attractions on earlier visits, where we were more concerned with getting drunk and punching people than we were with playing music."
Finally I offer my best wishes for his 40th birthday a couple of months ago, and wonder if it caused him much stress, or cause for reflection.
"I've never been a great one for birthday celebrations, and I didn't get particularly morbid about it until about two in the afternoon, and that was mainly due to the deluge of phone calls from friends and well-wishers saying, "What are you doing today? It's such a big day!"
He pauses for a moment, a rare thing in a conversation with Costello.
"I'm not a happy-go-lucky, laughing-at-life guy the whole time, as my music probably suggests, but I try to make the best use of my time, and I like my work. I don't see any reason to stop as you get older.