NEW YORK — It's an irony worthy of one of his tragicomic odes: Elvis Costello, the restless songwriter who never cared whether he outran his fans, is looking backward just like the rock stars he once ridiculed.
After years spent collaborating with string quartets and otherwise distancing himself from pop, this most curmudgeonly of songwriters is back with the band of his halcyon years, the Attractions. And his 14th release, Brutal Youth, which arrives in stores today, aggressively courts the folks who worship his first three albums.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the pairing that helped give new-wave a literate edge back in 1977, are about to experience (gasp) a comeback.
Not that it was calculated to be that. "It was a slow, organic coming together," said Costello, 39, settled in a New York hotel suite, battling bronchitis and investigating his new laptop computer between interviews.
"It's not like some accountant got us an offer of big money to do an exploitation tour. I never understood how (fans) could hang in year after year and go to these packaged reunions. The idea is always better than the reality. We all should know better by now."
Yet here he is, composer of last year's highbrow-aspiring The Juliet Letters, inspired by modern-day correspondence addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet Capulet, returning to the heathen land — and actually sounding nostalgic for the good old days of rock and roll.
He's writing songs that are spitting mad and nursery-rhyme simple. He's playing loud, audacious guitar. He's looking back at love affairs that almost were, recalling the London streets of his youth and, in a classic Costellian sneer, measuring degrees of injustice. Musically, Costello is striving for the immediacy of his earlier work even as he's writing on a higher compositional level.
"You don't really want it to be like putting on old shoes and walking the same route," he cautions. "With the Attractions, it's always been, you put on the old shoes and the shoes walk off with you in them."
Longtime Elvis watchers may be amazed that those shoes were willing to move in the same direction. The band did not part on good terms after 1986's Blood and Chocolate. There were screaming matches, and volleys of ill-will lofted in the press — particularly between Costello and Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas.
When he began Brutal Youth, Costello planned to work with just Pete Thomas, the Attractions' drummer.
"My thinking was that I can play bass and keyboards enough to suit most of the songs, but there's no way I can play drums," Costello says. "I knew I needed another set of ears in the control room, so that's how we got (producer) Mitchell Froom."
Later, when a few selections called for organ, Steve Nieve, the Attractions' keyboardist, was the logical choice. Nick Lowe, a Costello cohort, was enlisted to play bass on some things, but declined to do the entire record because he felt his style was ill-suited to some of the material.
"Mitchell suggested Bruce, and it was obvious he was perfect for the other songs," Costello recalls. "So I rang him up. We had a good, long chat. We realized we're both different people now, and we decided to give it a try.
"It came together in as unlikely a manner as (the band) did originally. There was no pressure of deciding to make the record and then having to compare it to the stuff we'd done before, because we were pretty far into it when we looked around and realized it was the Attractions. The songs were already written."
Costello didn't know what to expect — though he knew the Attractions weren't just there for a money-grabbing nostalgia trip. That much was made clear in the project's early stages, on a day the band devoted to running through some of Costello's trickier structures. It was a tedious process that didn't leave much room for musicmaking, so, as a respite before wrapping up, the musicians tackled "Sulky Girl," one of the less ambitious shouts on Brutal Youth.
"We hit the end of the chorus, and it was just roaring," Costello recalls. "Everybody was taking it as far as they could. It was the first time we'd played anything hard since coming back. Mitchell Froom came out of the control room, and it looked like what he'd heard had parted his hair. This band can plaster you against the back wall when it wants to."
Later in the sessions, on the down-tempo "Rocking Horse Road," the band had another spooky moment.
"It didn't start out to be like Otis Redding," he explains. "I saw (the song) as based on the 'Wild Thing' changes, which we use on the break in the middle. But while we were rehearsing it, it went from being aggressive into a much more sad song. Steve started putting this 'Dock of the Bay' organ part in (and) I was trying to play guitar like it was a Curtis Mayfield ballad. All of us had these things that we never mentioned to each other we were hearing. It was totally organic, not my initial vision of the song at all."
Brutal Youth may not satisfy every early-Elvis fan, but coming so soon after last fall's 2½ Years — the box set that collected Costello's first three albums and an unreleased 1978 live performance — it will probably lead some to re-evaluate the Costello catalogue. The bard never stopped writing great songs — he just hasn't always found the best way to showcase them (see King of America, for one example). Many will conclude that he needs the no-nonsense attack of the Attractions to fully realize his vinegary blasts, that his other settings are too precious.
With Brutal Youth, Costello the songwriter breaks a few of his longstanding rules. Where usually he sets his narratives in the present tense, he leaps unabashedly into the past this time, revisiting places and attitudes of his adolescence. "Just look at me, I'm having the time of my life, or something quite like it," he proclaims wistfully at one point.
Known for his playwright's sense of detail, he's less concerned about he- said-she-said dialogue than before: "Pony St.," one of the album's highlights, is a frantic exchange between an ex-hippie mother and her ultra- conservative daughter that takes a few spins to determine who's saying what.
Though he insists that "not every song has to be a puzzle," Costello hasn't completely abandoned the tricky turns and unusual song-forms that mark The Juliet Letters, which he considers one of his most overlooked successes. Brutal Youth's "London's Brilliant Parade," "You Tripped at Every Step," This Is Hell" and "Favourite Hour" extend conventional verse-chorus- bridge structure and are the logical outgrowth, he says, of his working with the Brodsky Quartet on Juliet.
"You don't just leave something like that behind," says Costello, who worked with the quartet for a year and recently completed a song for a Brodsky classical album. "It was incredibly fruitful even apart from the music we made. I discovered that I could work more effectively with them if I wrote things down, so I taught myself how to notate music and read notation."
As he rattles off other projects that have come his way since his work with the English ensemble — including a commission for a tribute to baroque composer Henry Purcell and 10 songs for pop thrush Wendy James that he wrote in a weekend — it's clear that sales of The Juliet Letters, which are now past the half-million mark, are really just a bonus.
Still, the album's sales figure startles even the seemingly unflappable Costello, who lives with his wife, former Pogues singer Cait O'Riordan, outside of Dublin. The more he thinks about it, however, the more logical it becomes.
"The audience has gotten much more sophisticated," he muses. "When we started making records, any deviation from the party line ... put you out of fashion really quickly. People just wouldn't accept me making a country record, for example. The slightest nuance and you were in trouble. Whereas now, you can incorporate things. It's not a crime to suggest a certain sound."
He cites "Just About Glad," from Brutal Youth as an example: "When I came up with the story, I knew immediately it had to sound like the Faces with Rod Stewart. I think people will hear it as part of the whole feeling of the song," and not merely a crass byte of classic rock.
Costello does believe, however, that his recent works may have been too eclectic. Spike (1989) and Mighty Like a Rose (1991) were investigations into New Orleans parade rhythms, English music hall and every kind of rococo pop in between. In retrospect, he realizes he asked too much of his audience.
"Not everybody is that curious. They get a little perplexed — not to say a little upset — looking for logic when there isn't any. The songs have their own internal logic, but from one to the next, they're incredibly far apart. To their peril."
Paradoxically, Costello points out, as audience receptivity is increasing, rising alternative acts show a decreased interest in communicating on any topic other than themselves.
Partly, he believes, this is the result of marketing acts exclusively to the college-radio or alternative audience. Such pigeonholing gives bands no incentive to develop the narrative skills that would allow them to break out.
"Some (artists) have this attitude 'I'm alternative, therefore I don't need to express.' They're not looking for a way of saying things with conviction. They'd rather just act damaged.
"Some very heartfelt stuff comes out of that, but just as much is incredibly self-indulgent. We're coming up to a big industry in 'confession as therapy' music. People are almost going out and having the experience just so they've got something to talk about."
This has never been a problem for Costello, whose overactive imagination has established him as one of the enduring voices of the post-punk era.
He chuckles derisively and wonders aloud, "Are we really to the point where you can't have a hit unless you have a colorful childhood to discuss?"