NEW YORK — Elvis Costello is feeling good today. From a suite in the Park Meridien Hotel, the man considered the best songwriter to emerge in the last 10 years has been talking to reporters almost non-stop for the last four days.
He has been explaining why he returned to his given name, Declan McManus, and added the name Aloysius, to boot. He has been dodging questions about his divorce, his new girlfriend — Cait O'Riordan of the Celtic rock group the Pogues — and his private life in general.
He has been surprisingly self-critical regarding his last two albums, Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, and genuinely enthusiastic about his new LP King of America. As always, he is insightful, arrogant, tender and cynical, sometimes within a matter of minutes.
As he sits down to talk, swinging one leg over his chair, a large bottle of mineral water in one hand, he pulls his round sunglasses down his nose. His eyes gleam and his mouth rises into a sly grin.
It is clear that Costello is enjoying a peak time of his life. This isn't the kind of temporary high, like those of the past, that comes from the rush of success and public acclaim. This time he got there the hard way.
"I've made a lot of mistakes in my life during the past few years — both professionally and personally," he says straightforwardly. "But now I feel I've resolved both of them to the best of my ability."
Indeed. Costello has never seemed more centered as both a musician and a person. Over his nine-year career, the 31-year-old British native has sometimes seemed like a mass of contradictions.
From his first album, My Aim Is True, Costello's songwriting was intelligent and aware without lapsing into the confessional self-indulgence of '70s singer-songwriters like James Taylor. But in 1979, he acted like an arrogant, insensitive child — most pointedly when he blurted a racist swipe about Ray Charles in the heat of an argument with Bonnie Bramlett and Steven Stills.
Bramlett and Stills could goad almost anyone into making irrational statements. Still, the blunder was a symptom of a man out of control. Shortly afterward, when the remark became public, a contrite Costello apologized. Later, he confessed his sin in a Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus But the situation confused the American public and Costello's popularity suffered.
He was also seen, at least initially, as a punk — aggressive in music, personal presence and perspective. But in 1981, he released the teary album of country cover songs, Almost Blue. With his 1982 Imperial Bedroom album, often called his masterpiece, Costello worked in a variety of musical idioms, including pre-rock pop.
Having established himself as a musician of long-lasting and varied talents who recorded what his heart told him, Costello did what seemed like another about-face and threw his hat into the commercial ring. On Punch The Clock he came up with a soft confectionary sound and a song, "Everyday I Write The Book," that he hoped would reach the top of the singles' charts.
It didn't work. With his 10th album, Goodbye Cruel World, Costello hit bottom. Not even his staunchest critical supporters could find much nice to say. Costello now says he recorded that album with the idea that he was going to quit music.
During most of this time, Costello was married, with a son. He also was known, however, as a carouser. Now his personal life and professional goals have settled down. His divorce has been painful but, as he says, "I've been lucky enough to find love a second time."
Moreover, he thinks that his current LP King Of America is one of his best albums ever. Rather than his usual backup band, the Attractions, Costello used, among others, jazz veterans Ray Brown and Earl Palmer and the former backup band for Elvis Presley.
Nonetheless, the production, guided by the deft hand of Texas musician T-Bone Burnett, is full and resonant, stripped-down and direct, but tender rather than austere. Vocally, Costello has never sounded surer or more honest. Musically, the album mixes styles from nightclub ballads to country-influenced romps to straightforward rock 'n' roll.
Costello had a lot to say about the making of the album and how past events of his career and personal life influenced its outcome.
"I'll use any kind of music that will get my point across," he said. "After all, none of the styles really belong to me. I'm just borrowing them. I have certain melodic ideas that fall within certain musical idioms. I'm a lyricist so I'll pick the musical style that best reflects the lyrical mood and the emotional content of the song."