Elvis Costello sounded amused when the number of songs he has recorded — almost 700, according to one source — was raised.
"That number seems to be getting bigger and bigger," Costello said during a recent telephone interview. "It was 600 a week ago, so I must have recorded about 100 last week. I have no idea. Maybe they're counting live versions and everything."
But even if you were to lowball the figure, it's hard not to be awed by the sheer without-a-net ambition of his current solo tour, in which he revisits, reworks and recalls an evening's worth of songs every night, all without the basic security of a set list.
The thread between songs, which Costello said he doesn't necessarily share with the audience, might be inspired by the room, the atmosphere or the occasion, among other things. "The more I follow this idea of trying to cut a line in my mind that threads me through the songs, I find my way to an idea that connects songs that might have been written a long time apart," he said. As an example, he cited a show at Toronto's Massey Hall, which took place the night before Father's Day. "I was singing a lot about the experiences of my father and grandfather in music, several songs to do with that. But I hadn't always programmed them close together, so I could open up a little bit of what's behind them," he said.
"So I talk sometimes. Sometimes I don't. It really depends on the mood, the shape of the hall, the architecture and people's tolerance for such things."
Costello performed a memorable stripped-down show here in 1999, with pianist Steve Nieve, but this is truly a solo event, with only the artist himself on stage. "I have the freedom to really break things down, sometimes return to the blueprint of the song, sometimes find an entirely different rhythm in which to play the song, which can throw the story of the song into some relief," he said. "I did a rock 'n' roll song the other night as a ballad, and you could tell people were hearing it for the first time, because their reactions to the words was different."
The solo tour is subtitled The Last Year of My Youth, which is also the title of a stunning song Costello recently debuted on the Late Show With David Letterman, the day after he had written it. Among its lines: "The night before, my friends had called to ask 'Are you OK?' / Are you running hot? Are you feeling cold? Are you out of juice? / Are you calculating your temperature? Have you checked your pulse? / Have you heard from your family doctor and his older friend Don Juan? / You're going to be 21 / Your best days are gone."
"Your friends will ring you on the eve of every significant birthday from the age of 21 to the age I am now," explained Costello, who turns 60 in August. "There's this inquiry of 'Are you doing all right?', as if you'd think your life is ending. Of course, every day we're alive, we should be grateful and glad that we're still able to do what we can do.
"Age really only gives you … more repertoire is what it gives you," he said, chuckling. "And more ways to tell a story. I've got stories now I couldn't have imagined and experiences I've had in music that I never could have imagined when I started out. But I'm not about taking a lap of honour. I'm about trying to make these things make sense in the moment — even if there are reflections within the songs of past experiences."
Costello's acclaimed body of work made it a natural for him to be among the artists recruited to work with a batch of 1967 Bob Dylan lyrics that were never put to music. Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes is due later this year. T Bone Burnett produced and participated, as did Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Rhiannon Giddens and Taylor Goldsmith.
"I had a ball," Costello said of the project. "It's done with a lot of good humour, as you might imagine with lyrics from that time."
Costello MCed the PEN New England award for song lyrics of literary excellence June 2, in a ceremony honouring Kris Kristofferson and Randy Newman, another writer Costello greatly admires. "Randy is one of the people that showed me, as an observer of songwriting, that you could be writing about the misfit or the misanthrope with as much humanity as you could find writing a beautiful love song," he said.
Costello has developed his own set of strengths, entirely different from Newman's, over 37 prolific years since he released his debut album. While the songwriting process has not necessarily become easier, there is a challenge, Costello said, in not relying on well-worn patterns.
"You become more able to come close to the model that you have in your mind for the song you're writing. Perhaps sometimes you don't stumble on those original accidents. It's not that you become more accomplished. It's that you have to remember not to go too close to the model — to still keep the idiot part of yourself alive," he said.
"'Keep the idiot part of yourself alive.' I'm having that printed on a T-shirt."
Elvis Costello performs Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Maison symphonique, as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Remaining tickets cost $67 via 514-842-2112 or pda.qc.ca. For more information, visit montrealjazzfest.com.