New York — Elvis Costello, considered the most talented songwriter to emerge from English new-wave rock, has released two records in the past year with songs he considers to be more compassionate than usual.
King of America was released last spring, co-produced with T-Bone Burnett and used country studio musicians.
"It's a more open record, more clear lyrically and more generous in emotion," Costello said in an interview.
"There are not so many mean songs on it. Some of my most successful songs have been quite malevolent. Those things are in me, like in everybody else. When I start thinking about angry things I become meaner. I've got some pretty mean songs lying festering away in my songbag, you know."
Blood & Chocolate, Costello's 13th LP in the United States, uses his long-time band, the Attractions.
"I very much want the new record to be successful because I've had few commercial successes," he said. "Over the last couple of years I haven't been doing songs of great emotional substance. People's feelings have been strong for more vivid material that came earlier in my career. I haven't gone to the hearts of people. The ones they get excited about are the old songs, still."
The Columbia record was No. 74 on the best-selling chart, and has been applauded by music critics.
"Some people do their washing up to records," said Costello, who thinks his songs require concentrated listening. "There's no handbook on how to listen to my records but I think it is unlikely people wash up to mine."
An aura of mystery and unavailability has surrounded Costello through much of his career. "It was for avoiding having to do interviews," he said in an interview. "They had written the article before they came to you. There was very little point in saying anything. It was easier to foster being difficult or mysterious or violent or all three, so people stayed away from you. I was working at a very furious pace. Let them write the stupid nonsense they were going to write anyway. All I wanted to do was get on with the work."
Costello lives in London. He put his real name, Declan MacManus, on King of America.
"I'm 32. I was 22 when I started. It's a way of saying that a period of time has elapsed and that's my name. You're not to take my name changing too seriously. There's no psychoanalytical reasoning behind it."
About changing Declan MacManus to Elvis Costello, he said "MacManus was hard to say over the phone, the N and M. And teachers had great difficulty pronouncing Declan. My great-grandfather's name was Costello. My manager added Elvis, like a stunt, a life-long stunt.
"There was a sense of ‘How dare you appropriate that name?' There was an attraction in that. I thought he (Elvis Presley) was pretty good. I never was a big fan. His name wasn't taken out of reverence or disrespect. I've worked with musicians who were in his band. They were good-humored about it."
Costello's grandfather came to the United States in the 1930s as a ship's trumpet player. His father was a trumpet player and singer. "I've got a trumpet; I've always meant to take it up," he said. "Somebody gave me a guitar. It has taken up all my time since."
He left school when he was 18. "I was living in Liverpool. I worked for a bank, then a cosmetics firm and then I got in this business.
"I made my first records while still working," he said. "I'd take sick days off I gave up the bank when they said I had to stand outside when the bullion was delivered and blow a whistle if there was a raid. The first person they're going to shoot is the guy with the whistle."
Costello's 1981 Almost Blue and the more recent King of America are country. "I wasn't born in Kentucky," he said. "It doesn't mean the music isn't real to me. I have as much right to sing it as anybody. It was all stolen from English and Irish folk music in the first place."
But he doesn't care for his two older albums. "I think Punch the Clock was ill-conceived and very badly arranged. There were some quite good songs. And the record wasn't very humorous. I think I'm getting funnier as I'm getting better at looking. Goodbye Cruel World was well executed and well produced, of quite slight songs."