It's the confidence that strikes you first. The piercing, lively eyes. The sharp opinions delivered with fierce intensity. The absolute certainty invested in every long, articulate answer. If Elvis Costello has any regrets, 18 years on, he's far too self-assured to show them.
Pop stars are meant to be superior, of course; snotty, arrogant, desperately, glamorously untouchable. This, though, is a different breed; one with distinct presence, authority and a high seriousness that would seem ridiculous coming from 99 per cent of those who pass through these pages week in, week out. If not quite capable of anything, Costello is at least convinced he's capable of most things. The post-punk Renaissance man, the amphetamine Buddy Holly, the authentic speccy git, has grown up — still madly ambitious, still Britain's best lyricist by a country mile — to be the supreme thinking man's rock star, a real statesman.
In theory it's a hateful idea. It reeks of complacency, and hauteur, of the Unplugged generation slipping on an Armani suit and tossing off two hours' worth of po-faced "classics" in the Albert Hall. Imagine, then, being assaulted by raw garage pop drenched in boiling adrenalin instead, pocket rants packed with neat, vituperative wisdom. This is the new Costello album Brutal Youth — as ruthless and gritty a record as a man nudging 40 could dream of making. Though he may dress like a consort of Clapton, may occasionally talk in paragraphs shaped for a Sunday supplement, Elvis Costello is still, emphatically, on our side.
Outside, in Holland Park, the embittered, gaudy, sulky and plain psychotic people who populate Brutal Youth go about their tiny, horrid lives. Inside, in the plush and panelled hotel that's also currently home to Snoop Doggy Dogg, the smartest man in pop is holding court.
You may be surprised to find him here, back in NME, in 1994. After all, he has been widely regarded — erroneously, as it happens, but we'll come to that — as having lost the plot about five years ago. The Spike and Mighty Like A Rose albums — densely-textured, sprawling, alienating — were given mixed critical receptions. Both contained fine songs so smothered by over-ambition you could be excused for missing them entirely; why use one guitar, they seemed to suggest, when five pianos, a New Orleans brass band and an Irish folk group would do? And when last year's ornate song cycle with the Brodsky string quartet, The Juliet Letters, stepped out its charms were ignored and the image of a man spiralling off into new zones of pretension was perpetuated.
It all conspired to obscure the fact that deep down beneath the frills and flights of composer fantasy, there was still an almost indecent number of exceptional songs. People began to conveniently forget how Costello had sprung back from allegedly unacceptable tangents in the past: remember the blank bafflement that greeted 1981's country covers album, Almost Blue; or this paper's epitaph-like single review of the rickety "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" in 1986? We are, ultimately, talking about a man
who has spent a career a dyed-in-the-wool perverse bastard.
Which is why the rough greatness of Brutal Youth — a record that'll have old retainers and youngblood newcomers alike screaming with joy — hardly comes as a shock. Emerging from where his recording career began, in Highbury's Pathway Studios, and with all the old Attractions gradually corralled one by one to play along, it's an unforgiving, beautifully seedy-sounding record. Channelled loathing rather than blind rage is his main trick now but, through 15 crumbling vignettes, it makes for as vicious a state-of-the-decaying-nation address as anyone could hope for. Something of a "back to basics" record, in fact...
"Watch out now!" Elvis Costello leans forward in his chair. He speaks jokily, but only just. "That sounds uncomfortably close to the current political philosophy. I don't want to use that dreaded phrase. I think actually if I ran now I'd have a pretty good chance of getting in."
Brutal Youth is very different to something as cluttered and complex as Mighty Like A Rose, though.
"Before it becomes a real re-conversion back to an old religion or something, I think Mighty Like A Rose is seen as being all one kind of music, when it's quite diverse. It was just the decision to make Brutal Youth all combo music, which was totally conscious. And then, little by little, it ended up with me bringing Steve (Nieve, pianist) in, then I asked Nick (Lowe) to play bass... It wasn't as if some guy with a big cigar came in and said — cue Groucho Marx voice — 'Hey, you know what? Let's get The Attractions back together.' For one thing, I think none of the guys would've done it for that reason alone. A couple of us hadn't even spoken to each other for a couple of years."
Brutal Youth is, in many ways, the most singularly "Elvis Costello" record Elvis Costello's ever made. While in the past it was easy to spot influences — a touch of Stax here, a daub of Gram Parsons there, a shitload of Lennonesque invective pretty much everywhere — here the main influence seems to be his own back catalogue; the elemental rumble of This Year's Model or Trust, say, As becomes the pattern, he has a good crack at evading the point.
"In the past I've used ironic music — 'Oliver's Army,' a serious song with very light music. With this, I've got the advantage now that people know certain things from older records, so I can play off that knowledge. So a song like 'Just About Glad' is about a guy looking back at when he was 21, when he thought he was a great lad, and trying to kid himself that it was all alright that these things didn't work out. But the music is the music that he was listening to then.
"In my mind," he contradicts, "the bass part at least has a bit of The Faces about it in that it plays the tune — like Ron Wood used to do. I imagine it's not me so much but the people that used to torture me in The Crow's Nest in Widnes to hear Rod's songs when I was playing there when I was 17. You know, they'd come up and want to hear "Cum On Feel The Noize" and there'd be two of us with acoustic guitars come to sing our folk songs, our teenage angst songs.
"But you know what, if somebody just wants to hear it as a loud song that they dig, that's fine too. I'm not saying you have to — hey! — understand my irony. I don't give a shit, it's there to be read either way."
Such self-absorption is all well and good. But Costello isn't always quite so easy-going. His livid reaction to criticism of The Juliet Letters, for example, actually obscured the fact that the album was, in general, reasonably well-received. One writer who slagged it off received a snapping and wounded letter in reply.
"You know what?" He becomes intense, passionate, a little proud. "There's a certain responsibility on my part to stand up for my collaborators (The Brodsky Quartet) because they're drawn into a petty-minded media position which is informed entirely by my back history, not theirs. Perhaps it was ill-advised to write, you should probably always be above it. But right at that moment I got furious because I felt it was unfair to those guys. They didn't ask for any of that shit, or some tired old hack like Tony Parsons taking us to task, trying to pretend to be dangerous by writing for the Daily Telegraph.
"But in the long run, the whole reason for shouting at somebody about anything is it gets it out of your head. Now it can be an important thing that really is close to your heart, or it can just be something that f---ing pisses you off. You shout, and then it's gone, and after that it doesn't matter."
That kind of anger, that forceful energy, seems to inform the new songs.
"Maybe so. I think there are more important things to focus your aggression on. It's not like you're contriving to feel angry, you feel about something what you feel about it, and you can either (press it or you can't."
But one sentiment that fills the record — especially on "20 Per Cent Amnesia" — is that you're ever too old to be angry.
"Well, I think it's a bit dangerous to become complacent, when you start accepting stuff that you used to think was unacceptable. And I think there are a lot of things that are unacceptable. They're different to you as you get older, you become more forgiving about certain frailties of other people. And at the same time you become absolutely unforgiving about things which perhaps you were too self-centred to even realise were happening in the past. In certain periods of my life I've had blinkers on."
Are there any old songs where you think your rage is petty now?
"If it was real to me then, it was real to me. It's no good me saying now, 'Well, as the Grand Old Man...' I don't feel like the Grand Old Man!"
Do you listen much to your old records?
"I did recently — it sounds like I should be sat with a glass balloon of brandy, and a doberman perched on my arm, running my old videos on a big screen. But I had to recently because of the box set (last year's Two And A Half Years collection of the first three albums plus a live CD). Every time I listen to them I change my mind. Armed Forces I liked much better than the last time I'd heard it. I'd got to think it was a very glib-sounding record but, maybe because everything's got much more slick, it now sounds very rough round the edges. If you compare it to a Michael Bolton record it sounds like Howlin' Wolf."
What about the last three records? Mighty Like A Rose drew a lot of criticism.
"You know what it was? It was the beard. The beard freaked people out. The beard was seen like, 'Oh, he's lost his mind'. It was also my turn — I was comparatively bulletproof until Mighty Like A Rose. Even Spike, when a lot of people freaked out and said it was over-ambitious or pretentious or whatever. Who cares? I like it! 750.000 people like it, so you can go f--- yourself, basically!
"But I do mean it quite literally, the beard did alarm people; 'Oh God! What's that?' Because whether I like it or not, some people see me as representative of some time or attitude, that I've got to be angry or on the edge, and if I've got a beard... that represents something else. Are people as easily fooled as that? I think some of the best tunes I've ever written are on that record, maybe they're not presented in the most ingratiating way. But you know what? Maybe I meant to do that. You don't always have to be trying to stroke the audience.
"People always want their artists to be tortured. I'm harder on myself than anyone can be, believe me. It's the way I wanted it to be, if you don't like it... then, fine, there are other records to listen to, nobody's forcing you. It's this idea that I have to live up to something, it only comes from people that maybe worry a little bit too hard, 'cos they've been paying attention all along and they feel you owe them something. There's nothing in my contract anywhere -with myself, with the devil — that says I have to mean anything to anybody but myself."
A parcel from the record company arrives, thrown on to the seat beside Costello. He welcomes the distraction, then gets back to what is obviously a prickly subject.
"It's probably a letter bomb. It's a Valentine's card. It's another false beard — 'We like the beard after all, we've had a conference, we want you to go back to the beard, the kids love it.'
"You know what I think? It's like that terrible saying, 'We'll look back at this and laugh'. I see changes happen to things that I thought would never end, like kinds of music that get on your nerves and then they vanish, or personalities on the radio -'God, is that guy ever gonna get off the air?' and then he does. You know what? You just live. It's not the end of the world.
"You wouldn't put all this effort and work into making the stuff detailed if you didn't think it was worth people looking, but there's also a point where you have to be aware that there's another point of view which just accepts music like oxygen, in a much less considered and serious way, with much less concentration on detail."
That's very phlegmatic. Do you ever get too serious and obsessive about your music?
"Me? No, I think you've got to take it seriously. This record has some music in it which might appear at first hearing to be like something I've done before. But I don't in any way mean to suggest that — hey! — you have to understand distance in order to appreciate this, 'cos I'm having great fun. Like I never got to play the guitar so loud before this one.
"The clearest example of what I'm trying to say is in '13 Steps Lead Down' — 'You can tie me up and do anything you want with me / But just turn off that ugly drug music.' And that ugly drug music happens, you know. There doesn't have to be all this incredible ambiguity about music. It's just literal. And you know what? Playing that guitar is really good fun. I really like making a noise."
Does it piss you off that people are going to say, 'Well, he's been arsing around for three LPs, but now he's gone back to what he's good at'?
"Well, it'll save them having to think, or listen to the songs..."
Around the time of Mighty Like A Rose, Costello told an interviewer, "People try very hard to think of earnest things to say about the world in music, but to my mind it's a sort of macabre comedy". That sick sense of farce is even more prevalent on Brutal Youth, from the Absolutely Fabulous-style scenario of "Pony Street," through a succession of songs brilliantly coloured by sexual violence and fetishism, to "This Is Hell," an insane and vivid parade of grotesquerie where he seems to be coming to terms with all that long-nurtured misanthropy.
"Maybe the world's become more macabre, and more comic as well," he says now. "For all my efforts to not be despairing on the last record, when I listen to it I hear more despair than on this one, where maybe it's just got so ludicrous now."
It certainly seems so on "Kinder Murder," a song that briskly but evocatively embraces cruel sex, abandonment, unwanted pregnancy and, eventually, child murder, then sets it all to a pumping, nagging bastard of a tune.
"I had this figure, this picture in my mind of a Norman Tebbit head, a sort of guy who believed any kind of liberal attitude was a disaster, and therefore believed in the strictest moral code — whether or not you live by it, and as we all know by now most of this is a complete sham.
"And then from fragments, real and imagined stuff, stuff that seems to happen uncomfortably a lot, came the story of a soldier picking up a girl — I left it out of sight whether it's a rape or just a seduction — and then she gets the kid... And that does happen. Soldiers do hide in the army from their responsibilities, the regiment creates a buffer so they never have, to 'fess up."
It's a little like the scenario of "Sleep Of The Just" (on 1986's solemn, mighty King Of America).
"I suppose so, but it adds up to a different conclusion. I was worried when I started to write it that people would think, 'Oh, he's really got it in for people in the army.' You know, 'Couldn't he get in the army or something? He's got flat feet, you know, it's very suspect.' It's just that the brutal, crude attitude of men to women seemed to be embodied in a bunch of squaddies all pissed up in the bar. We've seen it a hundred times.
"Then the other thing is that the kid is somehow vulnerable — not just 'cos he only has one parent, 'cos otherwise it sounds like a Tory manifesto. But when you read about kids who get murdered, some seem to be — I dunno — more likely to be murdered, in a terrible sort of way. There's something about the way they seem to present themselves to people who are sad and sick. It just happens. You can probably go through news reports of child murders and find that quite a lot of them are not just happy lives going along when some random, terrible thing happens. He sure right now there's some guy writing a thesis about this."
The next song, "13 Steps Lead Down," is packed with images of bondage and acceptance of sexual brutality.
"Well, that's very specifically about repetition, about people going back down a staircase that goes down to this place where they know harm comes to them. I thought, 'How about a song that says it just happens?' There's no moral judgment intended. It isn't logical, 'cos that kind of behaviour isn't logical, and if the girl is involved in bondage then she's compliant.
"The video director (Costello spent the previous night shooting a promo for the song) asked about the 'instruments of torture' — 'Is that whips?' I said, 'No, it's just high heels.' It's just a woman trying on an uncomfortable pair of high heels. Nothing more sinister than that. After all, high heels are mostly designed by men, like most fashion. You know, when you saw those models who had to walk down the catwalk wearing those feathered masks... I mean, how much more can you negate these women's personalities?"
It's kind of fortuitous that you've written a song touching on these subjects now, in the wake of the Stephen Milligan tragedy/fiasco.
"Oh, when I told somebody that I was going to call the record Brutal Youth, they said What about the case in Liverpool?' (the James Bulger murder). I said the terrible thing about that is that by the time this record comes out, there'll be 800 million other things that'll be holding people's attention, that'll have people saying, 'This is the worst thing that ever happened.'"
It'd be interesting to hear the reaction to "13 Steps Lead Down" this week, though, because it has a certain amorality, an acceptance that S&M happens and we're powerless over it.
"Yeah, or the other thing, that it's really good fun."
But the only opinions we've really heard about Milligan's death have been sanctimonious ones of utter disgust at such reprehensible behaviour, or just fake pity on what a sad life he must've lead.
"And there's the total libertine decision that it was nobody's business and he was just unlucky to die. If he hadn't died, then nobody would've been any the wiser. You know, it could be John Major doing that, none of us know. He might have this really secret, incredibly exotic life... I somewhat doubt it, but he might have. But I think Portillo is more likely to. I suspect him of some deep-seated perversity. It's in the mouth, it's something cruel, he looks like a conquistador..."
Brutal Youth's most explicitly political song is "20 Per Cent Amnesia," a clattering collection of doomy soundbites that pinpoints the miserable injustices — from petty disputes to international outrages — that people conveniently try and forget about.
"I wrote it in little snapshots because I didn't want it to be one long rant about one thing. It's an argument with somebody at the airport, a stupid, pointless crime, somebody standing at the dispatch box with a brandy in his hand. All these things chip away at what people used to think — not about what was decent and what was good — but what was good sense.
"The other thing that's in it is 'It's a dangerous game that comedy plays / Sometimes it tells you the truth / Sometimes it delays it.' You know, it's very easy to caricature John Major with his underpants, like Steve Bell does, and all impressionists. But the constant reducing of somebody's philosophy to that, and that alone, disguises it. They get away with murder by doing that, sometimes quite literally.
"That's why I told the story in the song about Gorbachev. That really did happen, they took him to see Cinderella. When he came begging for money I went to the opera, and I happened to go there the night they took him there. Suddenly the whole place was in uproar. Major walks in — 'My mate Mikhail' — and they've taken him to see La Cenerentola, which is Cinderella. Do you think that was an accident? I don't think so. These things are planned — what can we take him to that'll really humiliate him? OK, we'll bring him over here, we're not gonna give him the money, he's f---ed anyway, and let's really rub it in now. This is the way those public school bastards at the Foreign Office work."
What about "London's Brilliant Parade," where Swinging London and a lush, lovely setting is contrasted with reality, poverty, homelessness and the possibilities of suicide?
"I've got a flat up the road here, and it's a funny sort of area. You'll look out your window, and you're as likely to see some guy in rags as a bunch of dealers in real good suits staggering home. And I wanted the idea of a guy falling asleep and dreaming about an imaginary London, the London of all those groovy movies of the '60s where everything's possible and everyone's fantastically attractive. Like the club in Blow-Up where they're all pretending to be stoned. Then he wakes up and he's on Hungerford Bridge and it's really miserable and I didn't even wanna go into a big thing about what was right or wrong about it. It's just dull, and drained of any vitality."
Is there any connection between the song and the album you wrote for Wendy James last year (which featured a track called "London's Brilliant")?
"It just has the coincidence of a similar title. It was really like an acting job for her, however well or otherwise anybody thinks she carried it off. That's what it was, an imaginary character who you could say was similar and had been through similar circumstances. I've not even properly met her, I met her backstage at a U2 gig for two seconds. That's the only time had any contact with her, apart from receiving a letter expressing what she wanted to try and do. And then I sent her the songs."
How do you look back on that record?
For the first time, he pauses 'slightly: "Just like anything in the past. It's gone, there's nothing you can do about it, Not good or bad, it's just there. To be honest. I think the producer didn't do a very good job with the material. Nobody ever said she was Dusty Springfield, she's not a great singer, but she's a good pop star. And I thought, if you tell the world that you're gonna be on top of the world, and then It doesn't happen, then you'd better develop a sense of humour about it. That's what those songs were about. I think she did it fairly well, but the sound didn't carry any musical conviction."
If the first few songs of 'Brutal Youth' come across as an acutely observed documentary of life now later tracks are, albeit allusively, more personal and reflective. The spluttering "My Science Fiction Twin" at first seems impenetrable, but then reveals itself as a kind of grimly farcical battle between warring personality traits, between the good and the glib.
"It's a comical look at the ideals you set yourself," says Costello. "You're juggling while painting a masterpiece — it's a piss-take of that. Out of your own vanity you sometimes start to believe it.
" 'All The Rage' (a waltzing, malcontent's letter of intent, where he sneers, significantly, 'I'll never be as unhappy as you want me to be') is like that too. As much as its accusative, it's also accusing oneself of the Can-You-Not-Get-Over-This anger that you feel. When it's not focused, when its just random. I don't think I get in a rage pointlessly, but there are times when you get past the point where there's any sense to the anger. The bridge is the closest to a personal statement that this record has — 'I'll probably play along left to my own devices / Spare me the drone of your advice.'
"I don't need to be told, you know. These couple of songs are personal, and there's no apology needed for that. If you didn't put something of yourself in it then the whole question of looking outwards would just be, 'Oh well, I'm satisfied with my life but you're f---ed.' "
As the years go by, more of your songs are less direct, hiding behind a story and using a narrator.
"That's what interests me now. There's no loss of immediacy, or confidence, or belief in what I'm saying. In some ways you're able to be more brutally honest about things that are unpleasant to talk about, even about things in yourself. But less self-regarding and much less self-indulgent — like, there's a lot of this (he mimes slashing his wrists) pity-me music around now, and because there's so much of it, I'm doing it this way. Maybe that's being perverse, but I've made records where they're very literal and straight out of my head, like Blood And Chocolate."
So is your predilection for this kind of writing influenced by your personal life being settled now, by a sense of contentment?
"No, but I think it does afford you the ability to focus any aggression onto worthy targets rather than just the momentary frustration of having to speak in guarded ways because it's more painful to somebody else. It's useful to look at things that've really happened with a little bit of distance but no less heartfelt feeling. That maybe you didn't have the courage to say when you were supposed to be so confessional and so real. I guess 'Still Too Soon To Know' would be an example of that. And then there's the tiring negative complexities of living a wild — if wild's the right word — complicated life."
It was wild though, wasn't it? Didn't The Attractions have a reputation for being one of the most hedonistic bands around?
"I suppose so, yeah. But the very last thing that I'm gonna do is say, 'Hey man, we were really wild, you kids don't understand, you're just beginners. You Nirvana — ha! Piece of cake.' It's real to that moment. I think it is genuinely funny to watch somebody go through the moment when they wanna be real, and the moment where they resist fame, and the moment where they give into it. I know what that feels like."
He could talk all night, and probably will. There is, after all, always something sick and stupid to rail against, to target for a lashing. That's why Elvis Costello is — and it's a cliché, but an unavoidable one — just as relevant now as he ever has been, because he still cares enough to have a go. The fact that he can destroy something more eloquently, more rigorously than damn near anyone else — in conversation as well as in song — is just a bonus.
It's that care, too, that makes his music swing from the elaborate kinks of his last three albums to the base nastiness of Brutal Youth. A deathless desire to experiment. The last words on Mighty Like A Rose were "I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again." Some people didn't believe him. Fools.
"I read a review of the new record that says it's nostalgia. I went, 'Wow! When did I become nostalgic?' And I'm not. But then I'm not supposed to, I'm nostalgic about different things that mean the same in my life as perhaps some of my music does to other people. If you're just the right age, then of course it's gonna have that little special place, and everybody's got a record, or two, or 2,000 that they feel that way about.
"And I'm glad that I'm one of them, but it doesn't mean I want to make a living out of that impulse. I still want to be able to juggle with the bits and come up with something that makes it worthwhile. And when it isn't, then I guess that will be time to pack it in.
"But," and he speaks, as ever, with absolute confidence, "it isn't any time soon."