AUSTIN, Texas — The list of musical genres Elvis Costello has mastered continues to shrink.
Since he catapulted into the pop consciousness in 1977 with the hostile, complicated My Aim Is True, the 51-year old artist, also known as Declan MacManus, has become one of his generation's signature songwriters, moving from taunt tunes of lust and frustration to detailed songcraft able to express almost anything his muse desires. Costello's work has influenced anyone who wants to make smart, literate pop, from Austin's own Spoon to Belle and Sebastian.
Feel like some R&B? Just check out the faux-Stax bash 'n' pop on Get Happy!! or the grittier stories on The Delivery Man.
Country? Dig the earnest balladeering on Almost Blue.
More traditional pop? He collaborated with Burt Bacharach on the 1998 opus Painted From Memory.
Soundtracks? See also his work with composer Richard Harvey on the scores to British TV shows G.B.H. and Jake's Progress.
This year, he collaborated with Allen Toussaint on The River in Reverse, an album about the destruction of New Orleans.
And then there's his contemporary classical migrations. He recorded the 1993 album The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet. The 2003 set North was a torchier, pop-classical exercise in composition, but was released on legendary classical label Deutsche Grammophon, as was his next album and first orchestral composition Il Sogno.
The most recent genre Costello has cracked? The standard song.
Or, rather, on the new Costello album, My Flame Burns Blue, he treats his tunes from his catalog as you would standards, complete with swinging orchestration from the jazz-oriented Metropole Orkest, a Dutch ensemble famous for its versatility.
What's amazing is how well it hangs together.
Costello says as the pieces developed during the arranging process, different themes came to the fore. "Take 'Watching the Detectives,'" he says. "That song is about a woman watching a detective show to the distraction of her lover. But in this version, instead of creating the mood in his mind, we're basing the tune on the song that's playing in the show she's watching."
A little precious, perhaps, but a neat trick nonetheless.
He claims not to have any strategies for writing in a wide variety of idioms, saying it's pretty much impossible to compartmentalize the process. "I don't think you can," Costello says. "A song will come to you and a sound will surround it and you know right away if it demands drums and guitar or something else."
Costello's almost compulsive eclecticism has meant that he's working more now — and on more varied projects — than he ever has before. Just in the past month, he's produced The River in Reverse, recorded with Tony Bennett, played the Grand Ole Opry, guested at a Chieftains concert at Carnegie Hall and played the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductions (an honor he was granted in '03).
Here's the funny part: With playlists and MP3 players driving listening habits, his sort of eclectic work habits increasingly feel like a rule rather than an exception. And he's quick to credit his parents for enabling this sort of genre-hopping. "I was fortunate to live in a very open musical household. I liked the music my parents listened to, like Charles Mingus. I didn't even hear rock until I was 9. It wasn't on the radio that much in England, so I heard mostly ballad singers, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and classical music."
No wonder the guy can do anything.