What's on Elvis Costello's set list for tonight? Don't ask him: "A lot of music is pretty much all the same: it kind of comes out of a big sausage machine. We try to keep things from being too predictable."
If there's one thing Elvis Costello's followers can predict, it's that their predictions will usually be wrong. From straight-ahead rock to challenging string-quartet arrangements to pop collaborations with Burt Bacharach, the singer has restlessly pursued new ground with almost every project.
Tonight Costello plays the Montreal International Jazz Festival with backup group The Imposters — drummer Pete Thomas, force-of-nature keyboard player Steve Nieve and bassist Davey Faragher. "Actually, this tour is fairly unique in that we're playing the Montreal Jazz, the Ottawa Blues and the Calgary Folk Festivals all in the same spin. That pretty much says everything
about definitions and what I'm about," Costello said.
What unites Costello's work is the quality of his songwriting. Over the course of a 26-year career, even his weakest material has shown clever craftsmanship. His best is the stuff of full-on inspiration. Costello would be the first to admit that not all his efforts have been stellar: this is, after all, the man who began the liner notes to the reissue of Goodbye Cruel World (1984) by congratulating the reader for buying his worst album.
Still, there's a minimum standard. "I've never yet gone into the studio without songs," he said. "You'd be surprised how many people do that. They say 'We're going to make a record,' and the very last thing they thought to do is write any material. They sort of try and will it into existence — particularly if they've got strong personalities. They might even have instrumental signature sounds. In a lot of minds, that's enough to make a record. But it doesn't do it for me."
Further evidence of consistency can be found in the reissues of Costello's back catalogue that started coming out two years ago, each supplemented by a full disc of bonus material related to the sessions. This Year's Model (1978), Brutal Youth (1994) and Spike (1989) are among the albums that have been rehauled so far. "Part of the possibility of the process of reissuing them is that people may hear them afresh," Costello said. "Certain fashions of the time may prejudice people's ears to a record on its first release. A little down the road, the intentions become a little clearer on review — maybe not to me, but to the listener. I always knew what I was doing."
Even the angry young man of the punk-rock era doesn't seem entirely foreign to his older self, Costello said. "I still sing some of the songs from even my earliest records, but they're transformed somewhat by the passage of time — hopefully not in a bad way," he said.
In a recent appearance as guest host of the David Letterman Show, a witty and self-confident Costello bantered with Kim Cattrall and Eddie Izzard, revealing a flair for on-camera comedy that few expected. "I don't see myself as a talk-show host, but some sort of musical thing on television — I could certainly handle that. I've always known I could do it. Nobody ever really thought to give me a chance," he said.
For now, the immediate concern is live performance. Given that tonight marks only the fifth Costello sighting in Montreal since 1978, fans would be ill-advised to gamble on sitting it out until next time. "I kick myself when I think about people that I might have seen if I'd been a little less lazy and got out," Costello said. "The best place to hear music these days is in concert."
And, of course, expect the unexpected. Talking from Toronto Tuesday night, Costello said he and the Imposters will have changed their minds five times about the set list by the time they get here. "A lot of music is pretty much all the same: it kind of comes out of a big sausage machine. We try to keep things from being too predictable," he said.
Elvis Costello & The Imposters tonight at 8:30 at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Place des Arts. Tickets
cost $47.50 to $72.50. Available at the box office or through Admission.