Elvis Costello, arguably the most arresting and gifted rock songwriter of recent years, wants to discard his angry-young-man image. That's one reason he's doing interviews for the first time in four years and why he has adopted a softer, more melodic tone in his new, pop-flavored Imperial Bedroom album.
Sitting in a hotel room in Santa Cruz, Calif., Costello acknowledged that the controversial image initially helped him attract attention, but he feels it eventually threatened to smother him, emotionally and creatively.
"I think I was definitely beginning to lose control of things," Costello, 27, said. "It's too personal to go into all of it, but I will say I made several wrong turns in succession around the time of the Armed Forces album. I found myself getting farther and farther from what I started out to be and moving toward all the things I hated."
In the five years since the release of his first album, Costello has established himself as one of the most enigmatic and volatile figures in rock.
Alarmed by seeing the pop machinery strip the creativity from many of his own favorite artists, the Englishman challenged pop conventions at every turn — avoiding interviews, refusing to court radio stations and frequently showing little regard for his audience. It wasn't uncommon for him to walk off stage after only 40 minutes during his early tours.
Though he argued that journalists were being superficial when they described him as abrasive, Costello reinforced that image time and again.
The most dramatic of the Costello explosions occurred in 1979 when the singer got into a drunken dispute with Bonnie Bramiett and other rock musicians at a bar in Columbus, Ohio. Trying to offend their sensibilities so they'd leave the bar, Costello later said, he made a racial slur against Ray Charles. After the other musicians reported the incident to the press, the tale was widely distributed, causing many rock fans to brand Costello a racist.
Costello was so shaken by the reaction that he broke his press silence to meet with reporters in New York to give his side of the story and apologize for the misunderstanding. He then resumed the media blackout.
Because of Costello's cool relations with the press, I felt like a man trapped behind enemy lines as Costello whisked into the hotel lobby. But he posed patiently for the photographer and showed no uneasiness during the subsequent interview.
Asked why he was doing interviews again, he said:
"I think it's just time. I've been making records for five years now, and certain things probably need some explanation. In the past, I was never very keen to explain things as we went along because I felt it would diminish the impact if we constantly amended what was on the records. Plus, we were working at such a furious pace a lot of the time that I didn't think my opinions might be all that considered."
Despite the compassion and humor in his early albums, the combination of musical fury, brusque manner and biting themes about romantic betrayal and false allegiance caused Costello to be mistakenly lumped with rock's punk contingent.
Costello made a musical break from the early starkness with the Get Happy album in 1980, substituting a lighter, Memphis rhythm and blues feel. He made additional steps away from the aggressive tone of the early LPs with 1981's Trust and, especially, the all-country Almost Blue.
In his live shows, too, Costello has become far less combative on stage, frequently thanking the audience and even (gulp) smiling.
Costello's latest musical move comes in the new Imperial Bedroom album.
Rather than emphasize the big best, Costello and producer Geoff Emerick (a former Beatles studio aide) focus on vocal nuances and stylish production touches that are reminiscent in places of the Beatles' White Album.