Elvis Costello isn't sure how he'd like to you to refer to his new album, When I Was Cruel.
He isn't comfortable calling it his first "rock" record in a long time, though many pundits already have done so, since it's his first in eight years fired by fat guitars, crashing drums and a driving beat.
"I never liked the term 'rock,'" Costello carps. "Back when rock lost the 'roll' part of it, all the sex and swing went out of it."
He's just as fidgety about referring to the album as his first "proper" record in a long time, though, in fact, it is the first in six years to bear only his name.
"That makes it seem like all those collaborations I've been doing were less important," Costello says, referring to his joint efforts with everyone from lounge king Burt Bacharach to mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter.
"Maybe you should just call this my first loud record in however many years," Costello says with a laugh.
Wait. That doesn't work either. "Any record can be loud if you turn the volume high enough," he jokes.
So, okay. Clearly, Costello isn't a guy who's terribly chummy with categorizations. His recent résumé shows he has been working overtime to defy any and all musical definitions.
He has sung jazz pieces with the Mingus Orchestra, duetted on country songs with Lucinda Williams, performed gospel harmonies with the Fairfield Four, vocalized with the Brodsky String Quartet, crooned Charles Aznavour ballads for a movie soundtrack and written a musical theme for a British TV series. Last year, he even accepted an offer from an Italian dance company to write a full score for a 60-piece orchestra, for which he had no preparation whatsoever.
"It's not that different from working with a band," Costello says blithely. "I started out with four guys. Now it's up to 60. You just have to make sure the flute doesn't end up sounding like a guitar. I read a technical manual and felt my way through it."
Such creative pluck has made Costello's career one of the most far-reaching and respected — if also one of the most tricky to follow — in pop history. He has become so chameleonlike, he makes Madonna look like a creature of habit. Who else, after all, has the range, imagination and chutzpah to command two separate recording contracts at the same time?
Currently, the 47-year-old artist filters his music through a twin-headed corporate hydra: the pop division of Island/Def Jam, which is releasing his new album, and the more specialized imprints of Universal Classics, which release such projects as his collaboration with von Otter and the aforementioned ballet score.
The split ultimately reveals a more prosaic reason why Costello hasn't released what he sometimes likes to call "a rowdy rhythm record" in years. He admits he didn't want to fork over any pop-oriented music to Island until the company got through its wrenching reorganization.
"I wasn't about to give them a record when I wasn't sure who was in charge," he says, sounding slightly soiled by even having to consider such matters.
While Costello says he certainly does want his albums to sell, he isn't happy with any marketing term being applied to them. He hates the label "crossover," which has been used for his classical-leaning efforts. "It's insulting because it implies that you're trying to ingratiate yourself with an audience who otherwise wouldn't like you," he says. "With Anne Sophie, if we wanted to ingratiate ourselves we would have made a very different record. We did the songs that she enjoyed and she sang them exactly the way she wanted."
Certainly, Costello understands how rare it is for an audience to be allowed to follow that agenda in the corporate world. But observers feel that privilege is more than justified. "He's a master songwriter, who has earned the right, and has the fans, to allow him to go whereever he wants," says Rita Houston, music director of the respected Bronx-based free-form radio station WFUV. "He loves all kinds of music without bias."
Better for all his songwriting output, Costello's cleverness as a lyric writer and flair for melodic hooks hasn't waned after more than 25 years at the game.
When I Was Cruel is another example of his verbal derring-do. In subject matter, word choice and point of view, there isn't a cliched moment on the disk.
Take the opening cut. The title, "45," refers to both the peak year of the baby boom and the antique term for vinyl singles. As an added joke, the song lasts precisely three minutes and 33 seconds (suggesting the playing speed of an old LP).
At first, Costello swears the running time was an accident, then playfully adds, "We could be lying about the length, anyway. Has anyone actually timed it?"
Regardless of its brevity, the song covers an amazing range of subjects, including memory, fetishes, history, biography, style, corporate revolt, musical rebellion and the wages of fame. It just re-proves the old theory that the best pop singles tackle the most ground in the shortest space.
Unsurprisingly, Costello considers himself something of a singles obsessive, not to mention a record junkie. "It's my one extravagance. I'm not much of a fashion plate. I don't care what shoes I wear. But I love to buy records. I much prefer that to getting them for free. Queueing up [in a store] is part of it."
Costello isn't inspired only by music but also by the machinations of the music business. On the new song "Spooky Girlfriend," Costello sings about a pliant female singer and her creepy manager. "There's something fascinating about the acquiescence of a pop creation, just as there is a morbid fascination with the Svengali figure," he explains.
In another track, "Doll Revolution," Costello reverses his focus and writes about musicians revolting against the business, like the pioneers of grunge (or punk). The song might even be seen as a harbinger of what's to come next in music. "I'm always hopeful for the next big thing," he says. "No matter what it is."
Together, these two songs show the breadth of Costello's point of view. He says he witnessed both sides of the music biz at this year's Grammy Awards, at which he served as a presenter. "It's like a trip to the fair," he says. "You either come away with a big teddy bear or you eat too much cotton candy and feel sick. This time, you had Ralph Stanley singing 'O Death.' So there was this shock of recognition that something real was actually being allowed to break through, in the midst of these really contrived things. But the contrived things are interesting, too. There's no right or wrong here. To me, it's good that it's all represented."
Costello makes his open-minded attitude more personal in his album's title track, "When I Was Cruel." It finds Costello nostalgic for his youthful arrogance, when he could indulge the simple pleasure of writing people off without a thought.
"When you're older you see the humanity, even in people you despise," he explains. "You'll see an awful world leader, but then you notice the gravy stain on their tie or their bad toupee and there's this terrible moment where you feel pity — before you get back to hating them again."
Costello sustains his empathy further in "15 Petals," one of his few unguarded love songs — to his wife, Cait O'Riordan.
"I was never too good at the straight love song," Costello says. "I always felt the need to find a twist. But in this, there isn't any getting out."
Costello's lyrical dexterity is mirrored in the way he has moved with aplomb from one complex project to the next. His packed schedule has led some observers to label him a workaholic — which, characteristically, makes him blanch.
"The term suggests an unhealthy compulsion," he says. "But I really can't tell you a week when I've regretted it. To be in New York on Sept. 20, in that moment in the city, and record the horns for this record, and then go to L.A. to sing with the Mingus Orchestra for two of the best shows I've ever been involved in, then come back to Nashville and play with Lucinda Williams for a three-hour taping for Country Music Television ... why wouldn't I want to do that? My job is to play music."
But does this schedule leave Costello time for anything outside the world of song? He says he enjoys watching soccer, "though that usually involves some singing." And he likes to travel, though not to the usual places. His favorite trip was to an island near the South Pole. "To get bundled up and be surrounded by 70,000 curious penguins, that's better than drugs," he says.
Music remains his most reliable intoxicant. "And the least dangerous," he says, having given up alcohol. "I lost the taste one day — the same with meat. I think everybody has a certain allotment in their life and I met it. Besides, when you get older it slows you down and makes you blue and I'm melancholic enough."
So how does Costello transgress these days? "In ways you can't even imagine," he shoots back.
Of course, why act out in self-destructive ways when you can shatter the rules in your art? Costello clearly relishes his position as a maverick who can indulge every creative whim, regardless of how many people it reaches.
"I never think about the audience," he declares. "That would be patronizing. You can complain about how a record didn't reach more people or didn't get a fair shake because of trends or business reasons. But none of that matters. The main thing is just to make the records. They exist! They're there to be discovered or rediscovered. You can bury them at the bottom of the ocean, they'd still be there, somewhere, waiting to be heard."