Elvis Costello isn't losing any sleep over where he fits into today's pop scene. "I don't really care," he says almost gleefully. "I'm quite comfortable right in the thick of things or as far out as you want me to go."
Costello has been far out in recent years, recording with the sugary Burt Bacharach and the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. But he could get right back into the thick of things with a new album that reflects a long-awaited return to rock 'n' roll. Titled When I Was Cruel, it features "rowdy rhythm," as he writes in some of the funniest liner notes you'll read this year. He dryly adds that he used "a highly skilled team of musicians and engineers to ensure that he did not accidentally make a record that had been previously released."
Not to worry. It's well-nigh impossible for Costello to repeat himself. What he has done instead is to make a record that stands with some of his premier rock albums, Blood & Chocolate and This Year's Model.
"I can sing ballads pretty well, but there aren't too many rock 'n' roll singers left in the world that are worth a damn," he says from his hillside home in Dublin. "So I figured that it's time that I did that.
"I had some things that were very concentrated and very disciplined, whether it was working with Burt Bacharach or Sofie von Otter," he adds. "And then, suddenly all the liberties of (rock 'n' roll) appealed to me again. I had the idea of making a record with rhythm in it for the last couple of years, but one thing and another deflected from that, mainly tedious stuff like the music business being in an upheaval. My record company kept changing ownership, and I didn't even know who I'd be working with.
Costello, who performs at Fleet Boston Pavilion June 14, is going full speed ahead regardless. "There are some people out there who are not going to like this record, because it's too harsh" he says.
But it's hard to imagine a true Costello fan feeling that way. And some may even regret that it's not harsher. As he says, "it's not a retro, "bash-it-out record," but rather an album that rocks with the use of contemporary techniques, including a rare use of sampling on his part (he samples a ‘60s Italian record by Mina on the seven-minute track, "When I Was Cruel No 2").
"I assembled this team of engineers and producers in Dublin who could work at the speed I like to work at in the studio, but with command of some of the possibilities that the studio has now to bend things and shape the sound more," he says. "There's some great live playing from the band, but it's informed by the fact that I set out with a definite idea for the rhythm in most cases, and much of the rhythm was something I had predetermined with some of my little beat boxes at home."
As for the use of sampling, he says, "I never said I was opposed to it, but I just thought it had never been taken far enough. A lot of sampling was just to get the good groove off of an old record and just to steal it and put some boneheaded idea that maybe didn't even fit harmonically. That's what I would hear sometimes. I just didn't think it was pushed far enough. And I'm not saying that now I have realized it the way it should be done, but for me, it's much more satisfying to get the effect of something hypnotic like the sample on ‘When I Was Cruel' and lay over it my own chord progression. It creates some unusual tension."
Costello also achieves some unusual percussion sounds on "Spooky Girlfriend" and even raps at times on the vivid "Episode of Blonde," which includes the self-referential line, "Every Elvis has an army, every rattlesnake has its charm." Elsewhere, there's some solid rock in tracks like "My Little Blue Window" ("come by and smash my pane," he sings), the energized "Dissolve," and the riff-rocking power pop of "Tear Off Your Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," with a title that is quintessential Costello.
Asked what the title means, Costello, now 46, says it was inspired by walking into a bookstore one day and seeing a bunch of self-help books.
"You know what you should do with all those self-help books?" he says. "Just chuck them out the window, and put this record on instead. That's the only advice you really need in this world today. Chuck all those ‘Men are from Mars, and Women are from Jupiter or Wherever' books. And just listen to this song, and you'll be fine. You just need to tear off your own head, and then you'll be fine.
Ah, yes, the Elvis that punks know and love is back. And fans will get more when he goes on tour with a quartet anchored by his veteran backing musicians, Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums.
"The main thing is just to play a group of songs that you feel something for," he says. "Obviously, I feel strongly about the new record. And I think these songs are quite compatible with some of the strongest rock 'n' roll records that I've made, like Blood and Chocolate and This Year's Model so I imagine the songs from those albums will also be featured. "