One of Elvis Costello's inspirations, songwriter and producer Dan Penn, understood it better than most. Aretha Franklin caught on, too — as did Otis Redding, Gram Parsons and Ray Charles. They all knew that when the dust finally settles, rhythm and blues from Muscle Shoals, Ala., and roots music from Nashville, Tenn., share more than physical proximity. And The Delivery Man, Costello's new disc, reaffirms the good news.
"This is kind of a gospel record — only in the sense that gospel means truth," Costello said. "It takes its musical cue from the place where soul and country music meet. That's a place that I've been attracted to as a songwriter for years."
Penn is thanked as "leading light" in the liner notes. His "Dark End of the Street," co-written with Chips Moman and performed by Costello over the years, is echoed in the new disc's "Either Side of the Same Town." "He's an inspirational figure. I don't think I would be making a record like this but for his example," Costello said.
Parsons, a country-rock pioneer, covered both "Dark End of the Street" and another Penn classic, "Do Right Woman," with the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969 — but only after Lady Soul herself had taken a whack at it. "I first heard 'Do Right Woman' by Aretha Franklin," Costello said. "Two years later, I heard it by the Flying Burrito Brothers. I was younger and I took for granted the labels that we attach to music. I didn't think a country song could be an R&B song. Then I realized that yes, of course, it could be. And that's become the example of the way Dan Penn did it and the way Gram Parsons did it as well. It was something that I found inspiring."
Costello also credits his backing musicians, the Imposters, for the disc's sound. "This is actually the first album we've made together, and I think it's a pretty damn fine record as a band performance," he said, singling out recent addition Davey Faragher for special praise. The bassist is the only player distinguishing the Imposters from the Attractions, Costello's previous long-term backing group: he replaced Bruce Thomas, who was sacked in 1990.
That tiny personnel change has made a huge difference, Costello said. "As you get older, I think you have two choices: you can become more selfish or less selfish — and this band has become less selfish. The strength of the Attractions was to have four people soloing. It was very exciting when it worked, but then sometimes when we tried to play music that had its model in music that should groove, it didn't groove the way it might have done. The Imposters have a rhythm section where bass and drums have the more conventional relationship."
Far less concerned with groove is Il Sogno, Costello's ballet based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Composed in 2000 for Aterballeto, an Italian dance company, and recorded in 2002 with the London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestral work is finally getting a release this week.
Il Sogno's more delicate sections inspired some of the textures on last year's North, Costello said. "I didn't want showy things on North. I didn't want there to be big, sweeping strings," he said. "These were very concentrated, very intimate and truthful songs. Anything that put distance between them and the listener would be a mistake."
North was released shortly before Costello married jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall in December. The couple's relationship spilled into the studio when they worked on Krall's The Girl in the Other Room, but the mix of home and studio togetherness came naturally, according to Costello. "Before we were together as a couple, we had talked about collaborating — and, obviously, as I got to know her more and our relationship developed, we fell in love. By the time the record was made, we were engaged — and as you get to know a person more, (the person) trusts you. There are very, very personal things in these songs."
That's why Costello hastens to clarify his role in the six tracks he co-wrote with Krall. "People have been quick to ascribe certain lines of the songs to me, but my contribution of original lyrics to any of these songs is very small," he said. "The reality of it is that Diana wrote all of the images of The Girl in the Other Room — including the title. 'Departure Bay' refers to things in her home town and in her family history that I knew about, but I wouldn't have expressed them quite that way, because they needed to be expressed by her. My job was simply to pull it together into a lyrical shape that would complement her composition."
Costello's way with words will probably not find its next outlet in autobiography, either via a one-man show, like Ray Davies's Storyteller, or in written form. "I've been asked to write my autobiography since I was 24. That seemed fairly ludicrous to me and put me off the whole notion of biographical writing," he said.
"And there seem to be plenty of volunteers to write various forms of biography and memoir in my stead," he said, clearly unimpressed with recent accounts of his life. "All of those are characterized by my absence from their pages, which gives them, of course, a huge authority — all the authority of never having spoken to me and going on hearsay, on the word of people who have a grudge to settle. Most of those books — in fact, all of those books — can be consigned to the remainder bin fairly effectively. They're so biased as to be meaningless.
"And it just goes to prove that the telling of one person's life is just not very interesting. It confirms my thought that I would never write a formal biography. I think there are different ways to approach the experience of life."