Two very different sides of Elvis Costello will soon be on display.
On Sept. 21, he'll issue a country-soul CD, The Delivery Man, which he recorded in the American South. The same day, he'll put out an orchestral piece, Il Sogno, which he wrote for an Italian dance troupe's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream and recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.
There's a question Costello dreads when contemplating the public's reaction to two such dissimilar CDs.
"I would hate for people to listen to them and say, 'Which is the real you?'" he explains. "They're both the real me. It's all coming out of my head."
What hasn't come out of Costello's head?
Over the last few years, he has blossomed into the most broad-minded music-maker in contemporary pop. As his generation's Renaissance man, Costello has collaborated with a range of stars that includes Burt Bacharach, George Jones, mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter, Paul McCartney and, most recently, Diana Krall, whom Costello married last year.
Costello claims his rambling résumé isn't the product of any plot or ambition, but "arose naturally from the opportunities I've been given" and "from the people I wanted to work with."
He admits Il Sogno (The Dream) is probably the biggest leap for fans who know him as "that guy who bangs a guitar and yells into a microphone."
But Costello has worked in the classical field before, on albums with the Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters) and Von Otter (For the Stars). He has also been writing orchestral pieces privately for years.
In assessing the debut performance of Il Sogno at Lincoln Center, the classical critic Terry Teachout wrote "not only does [it] work, it stands up pretty well to the inevitable comparisons with George Gershwin's concert music."
Undoubtedly, most fans will feel more comfortable with The Delivery Man. Costello says the music explores "that place in the road where country and soul meet."
If forced to compare the CD with one of his earlier works, Costello likens it more to King of America than to his first all-country release, Almost Blue. His role models on The Delivery Man include Southern songwriters like Dan Penn ("Do Right Woman") and Harland Howard ("I Fall to Pieces"). Costello even collaborated on "Either Side of the Same Town" with Jerry Ragovoy, who penned scores of soul touchstones, like "Piece of My Heart," made famous by Janis Joplin.
Costello cut the new music with his band, the Imposters, in as fast and simple a style as possible.
"The watchword for this album was 'mobile,'" he explains. "We wanted something that could be played by a band on a flatbed truck."
SKIPPED THE STORY
While Costello's music may honor the down-home intersection of Nashville and Muscle Shoals, his lyrics maintain the density and sophistication that he's known for. Parts of Delivery Man tell a complex tale of three women, two of them "portrayed" by guest singers Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
All three women project different loves and fears onto the Delivery Man (named Abel), whom Costello describes as someone who committed murder as a child and may kill again.
Listeners will be hard pressed to follow the story line for a simple reason — there isn't any.
"I didn't want to make the album that literal," Costello says. He feared following too strict a sequence would tie him down — and listeners, too. Also, Costello says he didn't want the CD to be confused with a musical, a form he mostly loathes.
But clearly he gave the backgrounds of the characters quite a bit of thought.
During our interview, he went on at great length about them, offering details that are nowhere to be found on the record.
Fans are unlikely to care much, considering the caliber of Costello's performance in a cut like "Button My Lip," the CD's opener. It contains what could be his most thrillingly violent vocal since his punk days.
"That's appropriate," Costello says. "My character is contemplating homicide."
Several songs address world issues, notably "Bedlam," which is set in the Mideast. Costello also renders his version of "The Scarlet Tide" (sung by Alison Krauss on the Cold Mountain soundtrack), a piece commonly interpreted as anti-war.
"It's not an anti-war song," Costello says. "It's an anti-dread song."
Costello wrote it in reaction to America's obsession with terrorism.
"It distorts our ability to see further than the next threat," he reasons.
Despite the anger, violence and heartbreak that dominate The Delivery Man, it also contains a whiff of dark wit.
"Everything that I thought fanciful/And mocked as too extreme/Must be family entertainment/Here in the strange land of my dreams," he sings on "Bedlam."
Costello's mirth mirrors his attitude in life. Having just turned 50, he claims to be happier than ever these days. He calls his marriage to Krall "fantastic. It's such a great thing to admire the person you love.
"I always thought adults were having much more fun than teenagers," he adds. "It turns out to be absolutely true."