It takes a while to really get inside an Elvis Costello record. The dazzling cleverness and punch of his lyrics can overwhelm his often delicate, shifting, unusual melodies until the fourth or fifth listen, at which point those melodies begin to make sense, and everything falls together. But in this day and age not everyone has the patience to listen to an album four or five times before getting hooked, and consequently one of the most talented and prolific songwriters around produces album after album of carefully crafted songs that tend to get left by the wayside as the prevailing trend bands dominate the airwaves and the charts.
But at least he's still making albums, and while he's been accused of cynicism more than a few times in his decade and a half-long career, that hasn't stopped him from continuing to evolve as a performer and a songwriter. He's certainly changed a hell of a lot since 1977, when his debut LP, My Aim Is True, came out and he was the original and ultimate angry young nerd, snarling at record companies, unfaithful women and established bands and writing brilliant songs that were punk in attitude and energy but so much more than simple three-chord masterpieces.
Since then his music has steadily become more complicated and detailed, he's been through any number of different personas, his dizzyingly wide range of influences has become more evident and although his ire remains in full force, his supposed intolerance and narrow-mindedness have been revealed to be not that at all. Who could have imagined Elvis Costello covering a Grateful Dead song in 1977, when he probably would have called them a bunch of old farts? But on the recent Deadicated tribute, there he is doing "Ship Of Fools" and raving about the Dead's muddy Liverpool concert of 1972. With his new long hair and full beard, he even looks like Jerry Garcia these days.
On Mighty Like A Rose, Elvis' latest album, several other things are revealed, including the fact that his father's career as a big band trumpeter and singer—and open-minded attitude to music — is the key to Elvis' almost encyclopedic knowledge and love of pop, soul, jazz, Broadway, country, and almost every other musical style, as well as his ability to incorporate so many of those styles into his songs.
Elvis returns the favor on Mighty Like A Rose by having his father, Ross MacManus (his own name is Declan MacManus), play trumpet on "Invasion Hit Parade." In a way, that can be taken as a sign that Elvis is acknowledging the debt he owes his father. Over the phone from London, he explains. "I had this part in the arrangement and asked him to do it," he says simply. "Needless to say, he did it in half the time of most of the other overdubs, because he's so experienced.
"The funny thing that happened in English music was that unlike in America, the big dance bands survived the '50s, when rock 'n' roll happened — mainly because in North America you had a lot of rock 'n' roll on the radio. In England, right up until 1967 there was only a couple of hours a week when you could hear rock 'n' roll. The rest of the time they had everything from straight dance band music to ballads and light classical music, and among the bands that were on was the one my father sang with.
"They used to do cover versions of all the hits of the day," he adds, "and by 1966 they were covering things like 'Good Vibrations' and 'Like A Rolling Stone.' You can imagine it was a pretty bizarre sound. So he would get sent demonstration copies of every single. There were three singers in the orchestra, and I would always hope that my favorite song was allotted to my father, and I would get the single. So I had access to a lot more records than most of my friends, and they were quite envious of me. It also meant that my father had to accept a lot of varied material. Both he and my mother had very broad taste in music anyway— from classical to jazz and ballad singers to folk, Spanish and South American music. I think my parents liked The Beatles as much as I did. My mother liked the Rolling Stones, but not The Who. My father once gave me a Grateful Dead album. So it's no wonder that I have an odd attitude to music. They were a little more bohemian in their attitude — they didn't get put off by things as readily as my friends' parents did.
"So I've been very lucky in that I've been exposed to a tremendous amount of music all through my life. Maybe that's given me a head start in keeping an open mind about music, and kept me from getting stuck in any one type.
"And as you can hear on the new record, it means that I don't have any particular fear of adding an instrumental sound, which isn't always found in the kind of music that I'm supposedly playing. If I think it works for the sentiment or the drama of the song, then I think it's all right to use it. Some people will disagree — they think rock 'n' roll should be just guitars and drums. That's fine — there's plenty of people who do that very well. But I don't do that, and I think there's a place for both things."
Mighty Like A Rose is certainly proof of Elvis' expansive range. It opens with "The Other Side Of Summer," a twisted take on the Beach Boys' idyllic endless summer in which he can't help but see the poisoned surf, burning forests and casual killers. Then there's "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," a song as dry and crunchy as a dead insect, with "Tomorrow Never Knows"-style backwards keyboards and scratchy percussion; the traditionally vitriolic "How To Be Dumb;" the Leonard Cohen homage "After The Fall;" the painfully romantic "Sweet Pear" and the oom-pah-pah beat of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4." Virtually every song sports a slightly different vocal style, and the instrumentation includes "big stupid guitar" (a great addition to songs like "Invasion Hit Parade"), sleighbells, toy piano, calliope, maracas, woodwinds and strings, clavinet, trumpet, "hung upside down Rickenbacker tremelo bass," harpsichord, celeste and brass band — everything but the kitchen sink.
"People say it's complicated, and I say if it isn't complicated — well, maybe it isn't too crazy to say that everybody else's is too simple," Elvis says. "I don't want to make records that people will listen to for five minutes and then throw away. I try to make a record that you can live with for a few weeks —hopefully a couple of years — and still get something out of. So if I take a little time to make the story and music detailed, I don't think that's wrong.
"There are records you can listen to and get everything about them right away, and then you kind of tire of. I like a lot of those records too. But I also like records I can go back to after 20 years. Some of the songs, like 'The Other Side Of Summer,' you can tell what that is right away, but 'Hurry Down Doomsday,' for what it's worth, is my version of dance music. If I could dance for you, you'd know exactly what I'm talking about. It's kind of like a little upside down. You have to put your left leg right behind your head. That kind of dancing."
The album as a whole seems to have a certain theatrical quality to it, a fact that perhaps can be traced to the fact that Elvis has also been working on a theatrical score for a film. But he maintains the theatricality was intentional. "Most of the songs are like story songs, as opposed to songs written in the first person," he says. "And even some of the first person songs are characters, as opposed to things I've said myself. I suppose that in itself is quite theatrical. And some of the elements we've added to the band we've done to dramatize the songs, even if it's a very small drama."
How does he see Rose as differing from his last LP, Spike? "I think the main difference is that the songs on Spike were mostly written on guitar, and they're quite simple structurally, although there were a couple of quite nice melodies. They relied a lot more on rhythm to get to the end of the song. The songs on the new record were mostly written on piano, and somehow when I write on piano I seem to come up with much more interesting melodies. And though we have a variety of instruments, there's much more of an attempt to integrate the instruments than you normally find in rock 'n' roll. In that sense I was taking my inspiration from The Beach Boys, where Brian Wilson has an organ and a clavinet playing the same melody, and it takes you a while to realize that the thing that makes it sound so unusual is the addition of the clavinet. It's not like the clavinet jumps up and hits you in the face. That's really the main difference.
"Also, I wrote all of the material at home in Dublin. I moved there just over a year ago, and I suppose any difference in the sound has been brought about by the fact that I live not exactly in the country, but my nearest neighbor is maybe 500 yards away, so I can make noise any time of the day or night. It's different than being in the city, where you have to worry about the neighbors at three in the morning, you know?
"Anyway, we moved to Dublin and I got this piano that I hadn't seen in five years — it was at my ex-wife's house — and I got it back and stuck it in the house and wrote all this music on it, some of which turned into the songs on this record, and some of which I suppose will end up on this film soundtrack. Then I sat down and started to gather my thoughts about what I wanted to write about. It's a slightly mysterious process. As much as I know how songs work, I don't dwell too much on how it's done, because there's something almost magical about the way it happens. It still surprises me that I can sit down one day with a bunch of notes and odd fragments of lyric and the next day I'll have three or four songs. I don't think about it too hard, in case it stops happening. It's almost like you get superstitious about it."
Elvis' wife, former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, wrote one song on Rose, the sombre "Broken," and there are two more he wrote with Paul McCartney, a promising but odd onetime collaboration that's resulted in several songs on each other's albums. "Over two years ago I got a call to see whether I'd stop by his office, and we had tea together," Elvis recalls. "It was like a Noel Coward play. Obviously he's been through some incredible experiences, but he's always looking for new things to do. He could do anything he wanted, I suppose, but he wanted to try writing with someone again.
"We have certain things in common, which may not have much significance. Both our fathers were musicians, we're both from Liverpool, we're both left-handed — although I don't think there's anything particularly significant about that — but we just chatted about coincidences, and we got together in his studio and wrote the songs that appeared on Spike and the ones that appeared on Flowers In The Dirt and another bunch, among which were these two songs ['So Like Candy' and 'Playboy To A Man']. He had originally said that he wanted to do them, but he left them off his record. And I said, 'Well, if you're not going to make a record for a while, let me have a go at them.'
"And I think in the long run 'Candy' suits my voice really well. On 'Playboy' I went out of my way to make a completely different sounding voice by singing down a big metal pipe. It's pretty difficult to decide whether he would sing that song better than me. I don't think it really matters; what matters is whether it's an interesting version of the song. That one is about a fairly sleazy kind of playboy character who thinks he can woo any woman he chooses. I wanted to make him sound as disgusting as possible. I think I succeeded, don't you?"
It's interesting the way McCartney's saccharine tendencies are balanced by Costello's sharpness —perhaps it's what he's needed since he stopped writing with John Lennon. "Some of his songs are not to my taste, I'll be honest; I'd say that to his face," Elvis admits. "And some of my songs he probably finds a bit dense or serious. But the combination is pretty strong.
"The other thing is that when you write with somebody else, you tend not to write about immediate feelings; you try and make a song that's really true and has some strong feeling," he adds. "With certain songs I've written, if I hadn't released them for a couple of years they'd have sounded a bit out of date, because they were contemporary with something that had happened to me or I'd observed. Whereas if you write with someone else, they can sit there, and if they're good they'll last. When you write with other people you maybe write in a more universal sentiment, so they tend not to date as much, as opposed to when you write a more obviously personal song that has something to do with your life, and if you let that moment go by you won't feel quite the same about it. When I sing my older songs in concert now, I sing them in a different way than I did when I wrote them."
As a songwriter, Elvis has rarely been covered, in spite of his large output. But mostly he's been pleased with the results. Country singers George Jones and Johnny Cash have done versions of his tunes, and he counts both among his heroes. "The country stuff I heard as a kid was mostly what became hits on the pop charts," he says. "But as I got into people like The Byrds I started to learn about Merle Haggard and George Jones, or I'd listen to The Everly Brothers and I'd want to know who the Louvin Brothers were. It's just like when people bought the Rolling Stones' records and found out who Howlin' Wolf was. I think it's great when people do that— they find this whole world of music."
Certainly many people were turned on to the charms of George Jones' voice when Elvis covered "A Good Year For The Roses" and "Brown To Blue" on Almost Blue, and sang his own "Stranger In The House" with Jones. "It seems a funny thing to say, 'cause to me he's as permanent as Mount Rushmore," he says. "Him and Johnny Cash. I like George Jones' singing among all country singers; I hardly regard Johnny Cash as a country singer. I just think he sings Johnny Cash music, you know? I don't mean he's not authentic, just that he's got his own complete style, like Jerry Lee Lewis or Roy Orbison. Funnily enough, all those Sun Records guys did. They're stylists that can't be copied, whereas George Jones is more of a pure singer.
"I think it's a good thing that he's changed labels — maybe he was getting stifled. Look how good Johnny Cash's recent records sound, since he left Columbia. Let's face it, everyone gets better when they leave Columbia — him, me, Miles Davis..."
Cash's Costello cover was the wry hangover song "The Big Light." "He did it with great humor," Elvis recalls. "We both know what we're talking about with that one. I've sung 'The Big Light' with him, which was a terrifying experience. His voice sounds so enormous when you're standing next to him on stage; your voice sounds like a tiny little thing. I sing very loud, but I can't compete with him at all — it's just deep and resonant, and of course his whole presence is commanding.
"I've been extremely fortunate, really. Most of my favorite singers have recorded my songs. I've only had a dozen covers, but they've all been by people I really admire, like Chet Baker, Georgie Fame, Roger McGuinn, Roy Orbison. They're worth 10 bad versions that make you a lot of money."
What about Linda Ronstadt's cover of "Alison," which Elvis rather uncharitably, if accurately, described publicly as "rubbish"?
"Well, you know, I wasn't really very kind about her version," he says sheepishly. "I was kind of all punky and, 'Aw, rubbish,' you know? But she chose to do it, so although I didn't really care for the arrangement — I don't think they added a lot to it, and I didn't think it suited her voice very well — it did show some imagination, 'cause she was mostly doing songs by all these Californian guys. Why in the world she or her producer decided to do one of my songs I've no idea, but I suppose I could have been a little bit more polite about it. But that wasn't really the style in those days.
"It sounded too much like my version with her singing on it. But that's all in the past. I don't suppose she'll ever cut any of my songs again. She's an opera singer now, isn't she? Or something or other. A Mexican opera singer. I must say I like some of her records. Maybe we should do an album together!"
Currently Elvis is touring North America with a band that includes many of the players on Mighty Like A Rose — guitarist Marc Ribot, keyboardist Larry Knechtel, bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer (and original Attraction) Pete Thomas. "It's a really good band," he says. "Some of the guys I worked with on King Of America and Spike, and some, like Knechtel, I've only worked with on this record and some other recordings I did last year.
"I did another record which'll maybe come out next year," he adds, "a whole other record in two weeks. It's sort of like a record of my favorite songs, all different kinds of music. I don't know, I keep saying 'In the old days,' like I was 103, but when I first started buying records there were things like Sam Cooke's Night Mood, where he would do a record in a certain mood, and then the next week he'd do 'Twisting The Night Away,' and nobody would think anything funny of it. Whereas when I did Almost Blue people thought it was the weirdest thing I could possibly do. They didn't realize that I hadn't turned into a country singer forever; it was just a record of country songs. In the same way, I wanted to do a record of my favorite R&B and rock 'n' roll songs, and some ballads as well. It's not the sort of record I want to come out with a big fanfare and a roll of the drums — I just want to put it out between this album and the next one I write.
"On Mighty Like A Rose there's all kinds of music — there's my dance music, there's ballads and little dark stories, and some songs that are quite tender and mean quite a lot to me. I want to put all that on a record, but at the same time I don't want to cut off the possibility of doing a record where I just scream and shout or sing some rock 'n' roll songs that I dig doing. So hopefully there'll be a chance to put that out without making it seem like it's really important, you know? It's just a record!"
But with Elvis Costello it's never just a record, really, it's an event. As we speak he's just back from a promotional tour of Holland and Germany, and although he's very good-humored about it, he's clearly tiring of the manic attention he gets in the press. "You get all kinds of peculiar things said to you," he laughs. "I had a young German journalist who claimed to have listened to my records since he was eight years old, and he was very angry 'cause everything I'd said on this record was so negative. And I said, 'Well, what's so negative?' And he said, 'Well, you said, 'You hate all the people you used to adore,' and you say you hate Beethoven!' And I said, 'That means you think everything I said on this record, everything the characters say, is what I really mean. Don't you think it might be ironic?' And he said, 'No! You are like Richard Wagner. He was trying to destroy symphonic music, and you are trying to destroy pop music!' I said, 'You're thinking too much!"'