New Musical Express, June 8, 1991

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The hirsute of excellence

Christian Fevret

Unlucky for some? Elvis Costello's 13th album, Mighty Like A Rose, has divided the critics, with some learned scribes claiming it is his masterpiece and others lamenting a shocking lapse in quality control from DP MacManus. Christian Fevret was one of the few Elvis deigned to speak to, about songwriting, cynicism and the spirituality of Ireland.

"Please don't let me hear anything I cannot explain, I can't believe, I'll never believe in anything again."

The closing couplet on Elvis Costello's 13th album, Mighty Like A Rose, sees The Beloved Entertainer at his most pompous and pondermost.

To a mournful, fairgroundesque musical accompaniment (part of which, incidentally, forms the closing theme to Alan Bleasdale's tragi-comic TV series GBH), Costello gushes with clumsy sentiment as he casts a retrospective eye or four over his personal and professional past. It comes at the end of what is perhaps the most inaccessible 56 minutes of Costello's recording career. Elvis appears wilfully obtuse most of the time, only occasionally identifying and hitting his target with any semblance of accuracy.

The initially disappointing single "The Other Side Of Summer" is ultimately one of the album's more successful moments, with Costello prodding the flipside of "Fun, Fun, Fun," style placebo pop, complete with cynical swipes at the likes of John Lennon, Pink Floyd and the outdated hippy principles of the Beautiful Generation.

There is the usual pinpoint thumbnail sketches of sad and lonely lives ("All Grown Up," "Georgie And Her Rival"), but high points are all too infrequent. Yet, Mighty Like A Rose has been hailed in some quarters as Costello's best album to date, despite its lack of coherence and direction.

At a time when Elvis might be expected to explain himself more than ever before, he is keeping a strange kind of media half-silence. Most requests for interviews have been turned down, with Costello seemingly only speaking to publications that might give him an easy ride. He had declined to speak to the NME, and the majority of interviews that have appeared in the British press – like this one – have been "bought in" from European magazines.

Perhaps Costello feels everything he has to say can be heard on the album, he has no need to justify himself in print. Certainly in this interview he gives away very little and leaves many questions unanswered.

Nowadays, he prefers to associate with musicians of his own generation, to look for – and even grope for – the way out of rock 'n' roll.

"I live in Ireland most of the time now, where I've managed to fit in the piano again; I didn't have space for it in London. I don't play it particularly well but I can get more imaginative melodies out of it than I can out of a guitar. I get down to work every day – in the garden if I can – to write rough drafts or short storyboards.

"Now I can work for long periods at a time and blast it out all day long, far more than I ever could in my flat in London, or on the road. I say 'write', but that's not strictly true, because I can't actually write music, I never learnt how. I've got a computer that transcribes what I tape on to my four track recorder as a score.

It's fairly rough, but it means that I can at least give something to the more classical musicians who I work with sometimes; they can't play things by ear in the tradition of rock and need the music to read. My father, who's a professional musician, was made to learn to read music by my grandfather. Afterwards, my father wanted to be a little more easy-going with me; he persuaded himself that I'd learn in my own time… but I never did."

Do you resent him for that?

"I would've liked him to have been a little more strict …. But I'm learning gradually. One day I'll probably take lessons, so that I know the basics – because it's sometimes very frustrating, a bit like being an illiterate novelist. I started feeling frustrated recently because of the fields I'm starting to work in more and more, like doing music for films. My not knowing the rudiments of music is a real nuisance for everybody; it gets in the way of everything."

Do you feel that you've missed out on something because of this musical ignorance?

Not in terms of what I write. What I miss out on is being able to convey musical ideas in a way which orchestral musicians can understand. Because of my ignorance, sometimes I suggest things which they wouldn't have thought of, but I'm getting to the stage now where this naivety has outlasted its usefulness. Knowing the rudiments of music wouldn't, I think, change the way I write now. Several times in the last 12 years I've thought of giving up for a while to study, to catch up on what I've missed, so that I'd be able to perform the basics.."

Are the arrangements of your songs now more complex than before?

"I work today in the same way that I always worked with The Attractions, I record demo tapes – the musicians then may find things in them which I hadn't thought of; they interpret them in their own particular style. Mighty Like A Rose was recorded with fewer overdubs, it's more like a band, it suited the songs.

"With Spike, I experimented a lot more with the arrangements, whereas this album was done in a much more conventional way. I knew the guys who were playing on it better.

"I'm not being cynical. In 'How To Be Dumb,' 'All Grown Up', 'Harpies Bizarre,' 'After The Fall,' I'm watching others being cynical. Another distinctive feature of the album is the deliberate move not to have too many different perspectives in any one song. I talk about one emotion at a time, and keep the others for other tracks.

"Even though the record has nothing of the 'concept album' about it, it's still deliberately structured so as to tell a story. The train of ideas can be traced from one song through the next; it goes from a state of despair to an attitude more of cynicism and ends with a fairly hopeful view.

"A song like 'Playboy To A Man' isn't as serious as all the others, it's a moment of light relief between two gloomier songs. If a record is nothing but an unbroken chain of really sombre stuff., it's not only depressing, but also bloody difficult to listen to. You can't take in, end to end, a stream of songs with the same basic message; you need a bit of variety. And 'Playboy To A Man' is there to break up the mood of the other songs and, ultimately, to highlight it."

Nowadays, you're making 'grown-up' records. Have you turned respectable?

"When I started out, I toured all the time. As you get older you don't enjoy that as much so you try to make each tour different, the same goes for the records, they get further apart. I could speed up again… easily, but I'm not as volatile any more. I no longer feel that I have to react to everything, straight off, with the weapons I have at hand.

"Five years ago, I made Blood And Chocolate, a very simplistic pop album. I still love it and there's every chance I would make another record with that attitude, where you limit the options on the music… or maybe just an acoustic guitar and vocals … or even a record made up entirely of orchestral music, with no pop at all, but just as much aggression.

"Or maybe a record of my favourite songs, like the one I made last year. We'll pick the right moment to release it… And at the moment, I'm working on a piece of music for television.

"Without realising it, I try to distance myself from the obsessions of the last record because I'm scared of getting bored. Some musicians make a career out of doing the same record over and over again; I can't do that, I get bored. The idea of going back to something simple isn't completely out of the question.

"Even I couldn't have made Mighty Like A Rose a couple of years back. Although the arrangements are what you notice straight off. In the long run you realise that these songs taken as a whole aren't particularly overloaded with arrangements. They're very simple, very poppy songs, short stories told in a snappy way. When you tell a story, you can inject a certain amount of ambiguity and obscurity into it, just enough to stop people seeing through it too quickly. But in three minutes, you can't make it too obscure. Most of these songs can be played easily on an acoustic guitar. I hoped that people would realise this after they'd listened to a couple of times."

How do you see your earlier albums? Like noisy flashes In the pan?

"I never think about it. I like certain albums which I listen to occasionally, mostly when I'm about to go on tour, to pick out old songs that I could do again in a different way. It's like looking at an old photo; maybe you'll recapture what you were feeling at the time... And if there's something in the song that I can still identify with, then I'll take a look at it again and do something different with it.

Do you ever judge Elvis Costello the songwriter, as he was ten years ago?

It would be stupid to tell yourself that you wish you'd written that differently. There are certain songs that I've never property finished, not the earlier ones, because they're very simple. But from Trust onwards, and particularly on Imperial Bedroom, there are some songs which are difficult to understand, even for me (laughs)... Sometimes I think 'what was that about? (laughs)... It was extremely ambitious, if unintentional, to write songs from more than one perspective and which were technically very complex and varied.

"In certain cases, there was more ambition than could conceivably be got into a three-minute pop song. How many points of view can you get in there? It's comprehensible in itself at that particular moment in time, but it's such a personal thing that no one else can get into it.

"Some songs had three different perspectives and, five years later, even I can't remember which was the right and which the wrong one (laughs)... Even for me, it hasn't got the same power. And the fact that these songs didn't reach a lot of people proves that it was all too disconcerting. The new album is probably the simplest lyrically that I've ever released."

Do the people around you tell you what they think of your lyrics? And do you listen?

"Nowadays I play the songs to my wife, Cait, as well as to a couple of friends who write themselves. Sometimes I listen to what they have to say, but generally it's something that's too personal. You succeed or fail on your own terms and you can't keep asking the people around you what they think all the time It wouldn't be unique and and personal if you didn't have the confidence you need to make it on your own."

Do you still get the same pleasure from music?

I get pleasure out of my music and out of the gamble of playing all over the place with different musicians, like I've just been doing in the tribute to Charlie Mingus. It broadens your horizons and prevents your conception of what music can be from becoming too narrow.

"I listen to lots of different music – I always have, but these last three years I've become interested in an even wider range of music. Not all of it necessarily has any effect on what I write – classical music, for example: its highly unlikely that I'll start writing symphonies. But it opens your ears to other sounds: it puts things into perspective, gives you a sense of proportion and makes you realise your own capacities.

"You stop placing too much importance on your own songs; that doesn't make them unimportant as a consequence, but it stops you from getting too elevated. I believe that a three-minute pop song can be just as profound as a symphony, but without necessarily having the same intelligence or spiritual dimension. And then, I think it's ridiculous to use only one period of history – the rock 'n' roll years from 1954 onwards – as point of reference.

"People were experiencing the same personal feelings and emotions a century, two centuries ago. You recognise something true in one of Mozart's operas or one of Schubert's concertos just as clearly as in one of Hank Williams songs. Even if it's not your particular field, it's still true. And after all, that's exactly what we're looking for, isn't it?"

You often write for other people. Is it difficult to let songs go?

"I tell myself that maybe I've passed on a hit (laughs)... Some years ago, I gave Dave Edmunds a song that he had a hit with: 'Girls Talk.' More recently, 'You Bowed Down' was written for Roger McGuinn. Nothing's lost, as far as I'm concerned; I'll probably play it in concert. This morning I finished writing something for Charles Brown, a Texan blues singer who was around from the end of the '40s, beginning of the '50s, who dropped out of circulation. He's a great pianist, something like Nat King Cole when he started out, a very sophisticated blues player. I'd never have thought of keeping that particular song for me; I wrote with him in mind. Which is how it is most of the time.

"But it isn't unknown for me to write a song for someone I didn't know – like 'The Comedians' for Roy Orbison, five years before I actually met him. I thought about him while I was writing it, but I didn't know if he'd ever hear it."

How is your writing different when the song isn't for you?

"When you're writing for yourself, it ought to come more spontaneously. You wouldn't write something very personal if you're giving It to someone else. That would be like Cyrano de Bergerac, asking someone else to say 'I love you (from me).' You try to think what you like about that person musically so that you can emphasise that particular thing.

I felt that the story told in my song 'Hidden Shame' would be too aggressive for Johnny Cash. But when you think back to the handful of hard songs that he's done, you see that he's got nothing to fear from anything I write."

Have you got certain songs kept hidden, too personal to be surrendered to the public?

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"No. All my records are equally personal. How can there be any distance between yourself and your thoughts? But at the moment there are too many people saying 'Me, me, me.' I don't need to add to it, which is why there are very few first person lyrics on my recent records. They're more stories, they look outwards.

"That doesn't mean that the emotions are any less personal. It's just a more sophisticated way of talking about them. Saying 'I, I, I' – or worse, 'Me, me, me' doesn't give you any more authority on anything. In pop music, this ‘me’ is very self-centred and very spoilt.

“Of course, writing songs is a very self-centred thing to do, except, perhaps, if you’re writing musicals. And even then, you can’t say that Cole Porter’s songs weren’t personal and passionate. But as time goes by, the way that music is presented has changed, it’s become a much more personal thing, centred around the performers.

“Broadly speaking, before rock ‘n’ roll, and in particular before The Beatles, the performers didn’t write their own songs, or very rarely so: except some jazz and folk singers the likes of Jimmie Rogers or Hank Williams.

“The Beatles broke the mould so that they could write anything they liked. After them, anything became possible for performers. So much so that for some the responsibilities are too great; they can’t cope with them. It’s become important for musicians to be able to write different types of song, when most of them aren’t even capable of writing one type. The majority of musicians that we hear have no idea how to write even the most feeble song; they’re completely incompetent. How many good songs do you hear? Practically none.”

Your song for Roger McGuinn, ‘You Bowed Down’, tells the story of two friends who grow up in completely opposite ways, one of whom loses his ideals on the way. Is that from your own experience?

“I’m proud of that song; it’s a way of paying my debt to him for all the music of his I’ve loved. And it could just as easily apply to me, asking me if my own integrity is still intact. Everybody has to make compromises at some moment in their lives and ask themselves if they haven’t abandoned their ideals.

“It’s a song that I couldn’t have written when I was 22. Lots of things that were important to me then don’t seem so now, it doesn’t mean they diminished. But to write about them now would be ridiculous.

“ ‘You Bowed Down’ is a more grown up song, but without the pompous element that you find in so many adult songs, which claims that age has the monopoly on knowledge. Most people my age act like they’re lecturing, overflowing with certainties. Personally, I like to think that the doors are still open, that there are some doubts and possibilities left in rock ‘n’ roll. I’m quite old now. I’m 37, but in the ‘real’ world I’m still quite young.

“And if journalists a lot younger than me are writing that 30-year-olds are over the hill, then that’s because they just live for the moment and think they’ll never grow old. I thought the same thing too; I didn’t want to know about Led Zeppelin, I don’t expect them to like my records or understand what I’m writing about. When I’m on TV, I get kids of 12 asking me if I like so-and-so or so-and-so, expecting me to like the same groups as they do, when the only thing I can feel for these groups is dislike.

“A lot of music has only a very short lifespan; some of it becomes the subject of historical speculation, like punk. That was something which was over very quickly and which didn’t leave a particularly deep impression.

“Some very scholarly books have been written about it, like Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces. It’s a fascinating, slightly crazy book which goes on to make bizarre connections. You’re meant to be able to discover the secret of life in it just be casually picking up an ashtray (laughs) …. That’s an intriguing idea I used in the song ‘Hurry Down Doomsday’ … A book, different from all the other books with the same cover, whose owner is convinced that it contains terrible secrets. It’s not a particularly profound thought; what I like about it is the fact that it stimulates the imagination.

“In something of the same way that De Chirico’s pictures do. It doesn’t mean anything in particular to you but it intrigues you, forces you to ask yourself “What’s behind that wall?” Most of the time you admire someone’s imagination, it’s far rarer that they stimulate your own imagination.

“One of the major criticisms directed at older artists is that of compromise: they can’t be taken seriously any more because they’re only there for the money, trying to further their career by more or less desperate means.

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"When I was 22. everything was black or white to me. In a sense, that's still the case (laughs). I'm more intolerant now than ever before. Between 25 and 30 I was fairly tolerant of pop, I listened to a fair amount, I found the goods in groups whose records I wouldn't even dare to have in the house any more.

"I realise that I wasted a lot of time listening to insubstantial music, which I got nothing out of and which wore off too quickly, when I could have been listening to Louis Armstrong or music from the other side of the world, something a little more intriguing. Or I could have been reading a book or NOT listening to music, that's another alternative." Your fans have got a lot older as well.

"The young 22-year-old journalist should be looking for Cubism, Stravinsky, the shocking moment. He should be looking for something that's vivid, original, not comparing it to anything, or the Sex Pistols. So why should they be interested in me? There's already a history to what I do, what I do already has a past."

Do you owe it to young people to show them something else, other emotions?

"If that were the case, I'd be sporting a white beard, like Moses, not a redone... I don't feel that I have that sort of responsibility. But people would like me to aim at just one particular audience. I don't go in for those sorts of constrictions. I've played just as successfully to kids of seven as I have in prisons. Besides, my 16-year-old son loves Jimi Hendrix. I don't believe in barriers of that sort.

"What could I teach young people? I've no idea; except what I feel; people can take from that what they will. Maybe a song isn't as complex or as profound as a great painting, but you hope that it has the same joy, the same life and spirit in it. That's what makes me believe in music: I haven't got any moral points beyond the obvious, that I may have sung about.

"Songs like 'Let Them Dangle' or 'Tramp The Dirt Down' express a very subjective point of view; I don't claim that there are any absolute truths in anything that I've written.

"Only the last track on the album, 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected', is very... I was going to say spiritual — the word's very awkward because the meaning's different nowadays. At the moment, 'spiritual' means U2 or Sinead O'Connor. The last verse of 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected' goes 'I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again'. At the moment that's the only philosophical statement that I feel in any position to make. All I can say is 'This is what I feel, if this is what you feel too, then this song is for you'. But you can easily not need my song."

Ireland is credited with a particular spiritual dimension. Is that justified, in your opinion?

"It's very difficult to attain the spiritual. Especially in Ireland at the moment, where there seems to be a big movement, in the wake of U2 and Sinead O'Connor, to assume that everybody born in the country has some sort of mystical understanding of cosmic miracles. It's a lot of old bollocks really.

"Ireland has got a wonderful tradition of music, but it's been sterilised and packaged. But it's also got loads of boring self-destruction legends — the fascination with half-dead pop stars, like Iggy, The Pogues or Lou Reed, the thrill at the idea that they might not finish the song.

"Which is an idea stolen from poets like Baudelaire. In the same spirit as this (pseudo) mystical dimension is a crude imitation of a profound and traditional music; music which in itself is mystical. I don't believe that it can be captured on record, it's a much more visceral thing. In any case. no sage or philosopher would waste his time with pop music."

One of the most astute observers in pop music, Elvis Costello is regarded as a figurehead and a spokesperson for many, whether he likes it or not.

The quality of his previous work means that any casual utterance is destined to be dissected in the future, and perhaps that's what makes him feel uncomfortable. Maybe he feels he doesn't have the answers — or even the questions — that the listening public wants to hear.

He tells us that no sage or philosopher would waste his time on pop music, so why would any intelligent human being waste even more time talking about it?

Mighty Like A Rose is apparently the best Elvis can do right now, and the crown of thorns rests uneasily on his head.

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New Musical Express, June 8, 1991

Christian Fevret interviews Elvis Costello.  Translation by Vicki Whittaker and Marc Pechart; additional material by Terry Staunton


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Page scan.

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Photo by Renaud Monfourny.

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