NEW YORK — During the past year, Elvis Costello has appeared on David Letterman's show four limes with four different collaborators. Burt Bacharach, the Fairfield Four, the Jazz Passengers and Toshi Reagon & Big Lovely.
For those keeping track at home, that's a pop classicist, a gospel quartet, a modern jazz outfit featuring former Blondie singer Deborah Harry and an obscure Manhattan rock band.
It's typical Costello in the 1990s, where he's changed direction so much it's a wonder he doesn't have whiplash. Even fans accustomed to the twists and turns of an eclectic 20-year career that began with blasts of angry punk rock have to be shaking their heads.
What's up with Elvis Costello? Is this a test or something?
Over coffee at a midtown Manhattan cafe, Costello acknowledges he's given his followers quite a challenge_ But don't expect any apologies.
"I'm not trying to annoy them," he said. "I have to be prepared to lose people who want everything to stay the same, in order to gain the people who are prepared to listen with all their heart. That's much more important, really."
At age 42, Costello finds himself at something of a career crossroads. He's broken up his longtime backup band for the second time, released a compilation disc that's essentially a "divorce settlement" from his record label and is about to sign a new deal to distribute his music for the next several years.
The disc Extreme Honey is an overview of his decade recording for Warner Bros. Records. It includes one hit, "Veronica," several overlooked songs and one new one, "The Bridge I Burned," which offers up Costello's son, Matt MacManus, on bass.
"I have absolutely no complaint with the musical freedom I've been allowed over the past eight or nine years," Costello said. "I think I've exploited it in my own way, sometimes to the detriment of commercial logic. ... But the shoddy treatment I've had over the last two or three years had to end.
"I was either going to quit completely or they were going to let me out," he said, referring to his contract.
Costello feels the company didn't do enough to sell his music over the past few years. Corporate turmoil at Warners, where there's been a turnover in top management, may be partly to blame.
Don't discount, however, company resentment at Costello's own wobbly output. A classical album and collection of obscure covrr tunes are not the easiest things to sell in today's marketplace.
Costello's anger reached such proportions that, in a devilishly twisted move, he commissioned musicians like Tricky, Lush and Sleeper to "deface" sonic of the songs from his All This Useless Beauty album with their own versions.
His vision of a musical form of graffiti ultimately backfired because the artists were too "nice" to the songs, he said. And Warners never released the new versions domestically anyway.
Costello chooses his latest album's liner notes to announce the final dissolution of his backup band, the Attractions. In their prime, keyboard player Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas rivaled the E Street Band and the Heartbreakers as rock's most cohesive backup unit.
But since their former leader referred to them in an interview as "that sorry carcass," don't expect another reunion tour soon.
Costello's ongoing conflict with Bruce Thomas — who once wrote a thinly disguised novel about a tyrannical rock star — seems the chief reason. That's basically why the Attractions were shelved from 1987-94 before reuniting for two albums and a tour.
Costello said Thomas "just couldn't concentrate any more and he was making a lot of embarrassing mistakes." And the Attractions had taken pride in never being erratic.
As for the music, he said, "We did set a very high standard and the last thing I wanted it to be was a sorry excuse for it.
"I think the two records we made made a very good case for the band as a bunch of grown-up guys playing music together one playing in the framework of the music we started out with and the other doing all of the other things that we had learned in the interim," he said. "And that's really where I wanted to end it."
He's committed to continue working with Nieve, and is booked for a second tour as a duo with his keyboardist.
With other commitments to Bacharach, the classical Brodsky Quartet and a rock soundtrack song for a Coen Brothers film, he intends to make the most of his freedom.
Costello's stylistic wanderings stem from a voracious musical appetite that began almost before he could talk. The son of a dance Banc singer from Liverpool who constantly brought test pressings of popular music into the home, he was told one of his first words was "skin" — a request to hear Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin."
A sack of new CDs is a constant companion on the road; two of his recent favorites are the Verve and Bob Dylan.
His first album under his new deal is likely to be a full-length collaboration with Bacharach. The two wrote "God Give Mc Strength" by long-distance, using the telephone and faxing each other; they worked face-to-face on the new songs.
"We've really gotten along quite well, given that there arc a lot of years between us," Costello said. "I think that he is quite misread by people as being Mr. Affable or easy listening. 'That's a complete misreading of his music. I think his music is very erotic, completely sensual and very dark at times."
Their new songs together make "God Give Me Strength" sound "like the Partridge Family," Costello said.
He said he's got his next five albums mapped out, although there's always room to be sidetracked.
But the ultimate goal for one of rock's great wordsmiths may surprise you: a record with no words at all.
"If I ever make an instrumental record that's really, really moving and does the same thing as a record with songs on it, go immediately to the stone mason to buy my headstone, because that would be the end of it," lie said. "The great thing is to have an objective that's almost impossible to achieve, because then you have something to strive for."