His publicist from Warner Bros. cautions that he should be addressed only as Elvis, never Mr. Costello. What's in a name? For the man born Declan MacManus, it is a point of definition. He has called himself Napoleon Dynamite, the Imposter, Howard Coward and the Emotional Toothpaste. But the invention that has carried him through his career is Elvis Costello. It's just cheeky enough to be defiant, and yet it has entertainment written all over it. It's not just a name, it's a title. In his New York hotel suite, he is more genial than suggested by the sneering persona that animates many of his songs. He can't contain his eagerness to talk about his new album, Brutal Youth. Fighting a high fever, however, he seems more prepared to faint than to give an interview. He has just flown in from Toronto and is concerned that his conversation might degenerate into hallucinatory ramblings and fever-dreams. He says, "I had no idea Canada would be so cold."
The 15 new songs on Brutal Youth mark a reunion with the Attractions, the virtuosic backing band that accompanied him on all but one of his first dozen studio albums, released in the U.S. on Columbia Records. The musical partnership dissolved around the time he moved to Warner Bros. in 1988. After a long and sometimes acrimonious separation from the band, Costello appeared to be on a steady trajectory away from the standard combo and toward his own brand of art song. His 1989 album, Spike, is a colorful patchwork. Artists like Marc Ribot, Allen Toussaint and Paul McCartney perform on the record and contribute their trademark styles on the guitar, piano and bass, respectively. McCartney, who found himself in dire need of fresh inspiration, also called upon Costello to try out a writing partnership. The resulting songs were spread out over their subsequent albums. Then came Mighty Like a Rose (1991), which includes more phone-in performances by many notables and also reveals Costello's growing interest in classical music. His last album, The Juliet Letters (1993), explores that interest, with breathtaking results. Collaborating with the Brodsky Quartet, a young but accomplished English string quartet, he stretches his talent, as well as his perceived roll as a rock singer. Gaining an understanding of four-part counterpoint, he says, was his most mind-blowing experience since learning about chords as a kid: "It's a terrible thing to admit but I've never played scales on any instrument in my life. I just immediately learned chord symbols on the guitar because that allowed me to sing songs, and that was the most liberating thing imaginable. And once I'd learned five chords, I started writing things. It just changes your whole life."
Brutal Youth would seem to represent a back-to-basics return to roots, which has proven to be popular with many rock stars approaching their fortieth birthday. But with Costello, nothing is that simple. As Rykodisc reissues his entire "Columbia" catalog on CD, starting with a boxed set of the first two and a half years, we are reminded that those naive, uncomplicated days were nothing of the sort. Even his pre-professional home recordings (also included in the reissues) belie a sophistication and self-awareness unusual at any age. His inspirations range from bands like Booker T and the MGs and Buddy Holly and the Crickets to songwriters like Randy Newman and Hogey Carmichael as well as Tin Pan Alley and Broadway giants like Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart. The only thing brutal about his youth was the way he ransacked every song and plundered every genre he could get his hands on.
The reunion with the Attractions was not a dramatic or planned event, but materialized rather unannounced. Costello happened to find himself in Pathway Studios of North London, the tiny eight-track facility where he recorded his first album, My Aim is True. He was there with Pete Thomas, the Attractions' drummer, recording a demonstration tape for Wendy James, the pouty blonde who fronted the briefly notorious London band, Transvision Vamp. James had wanted Costello to write a song for her. "I couldn't really see how one song would fit in with her stuff," says Costello, "and I thought it would be much more fun if I took a Svengali sort of role and just did this ridiculous thing writing all 10. It didn't take that much out of me to do it." With the help of his wife, Cait O'Riordan, a former member of the Pogues, he dashed off two handfuls of outlandish songs in a weekend. Returning to Pathway to make the demo tape for James inspired him to write and record a few songs for his own purposes, which eventually led to Brutal Youth. He says, "I realized I could very well just go in with Pete and me producing and cut the whole album. We didn't have to go to Hollywood in some expensive studio."
One by one the Attractions were called upon to create the full sound that made them famous. Steve Nieve took his place at the keyboards. At first, the bass was provided by Nick Lowe (who produced most of Costello's album with the Attractions), creating a lineup dubbed "The Distractions." But some of the more complicated numbers seemed better suited to bassist Bruce Thomas, the last missing component in the reunion and the source of most of the personal friction with Costello. The two volleyed vitriol for years, including an attack song on Mighty Like a Rose called "How to Be Dumb" and Thomas' petty roman a clef, The Big Wheel. Costello recalls, "I wasn't even certain if Bruce would want to do it or whether we could work together. I never had any doubts about his playing. We just didn't get along any more. As disappointingly un-Oprah like as it is, there wasn't any big confessional forgiveness stuff about it. I just rang up and said, 'Do you want to do this?' and he said, 'Yes.'"
The limited facilities at Pathway helped define the sound of the album. "In an eight-track studio without a very high technical standard," says Costello, "you have to be making noise the whole time. Otherwise the hiss, the console noise is louder than the music." The result is a refreshingly direct sound. The relatively sparse instrumentation and lack of layering allows Costello's already rich writing to come through. Nieve's intricate, rococo tendencies are also kept tastefully at bay. After experimenting with very complicated music and production on his last three albums as well as on earlier efforts like Imperial Bedroom, Costello says that writing these more straightforward songs was like falling off a log. "I had a big burst of writing where I wrote six songs in one day. It sounds very boastful and fanciful, but they were just six things that popped out every time I picked up the guitar." Such spontaneity has produced his most frank and affecting album since King of America in 1986.
Costello's lyrics have always been stuffed with power and cleverness, frequently overstuffed. But his genius for melody, evident even in his fast and furious numbers, is what truly sets him apart. Besides Paul McCartney, there is quite simply no one that comes close. When he creates melodies like "Kid About It" from Imperial Bedroom, with many unusual harmonic changes, it is impressive. But he shows the depth of his talent in a song like "I'll Wear it Proudly" from King of America by making equally beautiful and unique melodies around three simple chords. This talent is evident throughout Brutal Youth. Who else could have written the melody that effortlessly bounds into the title phrase of "London's Brilliant Parade"? Costello's voice is astonishing as he threads extended phrases of difficult intervals. (Of course, if McCartney sang it, he would make it sound easy.)
Most melodies, pop or otherwise, tend to repeat material after four bars or so, but Costello often weaves long and winding melodies that seem limitless in their inventiveness. "London's Brilliant Parade" is made up of many sections that never repeat quite the same way. Even the chorus returns with slight changes, but becomes familiar enough to ground the song. Such a perpetually unfurling tune is well suited to the lyric, which describes someone drifting off into sleep. In a dream, he travels back in time to swinging London as it may or may not have existed: "Just look at me, I'm having the time of my life. Or something quite like it."
Costello says he couldn't have written this song without his experience of making The Juliet Letters. In addition to learning how to write music down for the first time, he says, "I learned how to listen to the quartet and hear the independence of the lines and the cohesion of the ensemble at the same time — and how to fit my voice in and around it. That process definitely has something to do with how that song sounds. I would never have written that opening figure before." Paul McCartney is one rock songwriter who, despite his aspirations to "serious" music, has always resisted learning musical technique per se. He fears it would corrupt hos obvious innate gifts. Costello, however, eats it up. "It doesn't change you in the way that people expect it to, which is that you're then gonna go, 'Oh, I can't do that now, oh, that's a falling third,' that you're gonna suddenly be inhibited. ... For me, it allows me to communicate with people that will work best if I give them the music in that form."
Costello's ability to pinpoint a musical idea and expand it just far enough to generate a song is highlighted on his new album. For example, as he says about the second track, "Kinder Murder," "That song is all down to this funny change; it just goes to the relative minor, but it's unusual to have a nine at the top both times. And that's enough. There's no more music in it than that. If you had any more music in it, you wouldn't have room for the story." This statement is very knowing. Whatever stylistic devices he may use, his eyes are still open to the crucial distinction between form and substance. He recognizes that a solid musical idea, however simple, is the difference between making sounds and making music. It puts the writing in songwriting. He goes so far as to carry the theme of a clashing note into the bridge, tying the piece together neatly. "I love tunes that get outside of the chords and have this interfering note in it," he explains. "And obviously there's a lot of that on The Juliet Letters because you're able to have that kind of waywardness [with a string quartet] and it's deadly clear. If you attempted it with five people playing amplified instruments, it could just be a mess." What the songs on Brutal Youth lack in clarity of instrumental timbre, they make up for with clarity of musical thought.
Although Costello and the Attractions have never written down their musical ideas for each other, they manage to remain a tight-knit unit in very complicated passages. When asked how they communicate, Costello stands up and jokes: "at a distance with pointed sticks." Working by example has been a very useful method for them since their first recordings together. An established genre or a given song may serve as a starting point, and then each player understands what is required. The sound of the new song is founded on a chosen template. It is like sampling, in the broadest sense. Costello explains, "When I started out, particularly with the second record I did [This Year's Model], you can see the blueprint; at least I can. Only a few critics, with bigger record collections than me, knew where I had taken songs from, because in '78, not every record was available. There were records out of print. 'This Year's Girl' is based on 'Stupid Girl' by the Stones. It doesn't have anything musically to do with it, but it's an update of it, or a flipside of it. It's an answer song or something. The first album, even — it's hard to hear — but one song is the Velvet Underground, one song is the Byrds, one song is Motown." This technique is also used on Brutal Youth. Costello had the Faces in mind for the song "Just About Glad." He says, "It's exactly the sort of Jack-the-Lad music the character in that song would have been trying to live up to." As for the song "20% Amnesia," he claims it is meant to sound like "a cross between Prokofiev and the Rolling Stones."
When it comes to "roots," Costello has many, each yielding a different flower. This kind of versatility can be fun, but it can diminish a song to a pastiche or a musical in-joke. Costello finds it liberating: "I think it's a shame that quite a few American singers, whether they're in country or jazz, only ever do songs which are obviously stamped with the genre that they work in." Costello has forged an entity out of his musicological expertise. In addition to his original new wave rock 'n' roll sound, he has worked frequently with country music and has dabbled in Celtic folk, bluegrass, theater songs, art songs and most things in between. These songs usually threaten to surpass their progenitors. Of course, he meets resistance from listeners who like only what they know, but he is happy to see that the CD and reissue revolutions have made his audience's musical scope "infinitely more sophisticated" than when he started out.
Costello has recently discovered that having a wide range of references is equally rare outside the rock-music world. "Working with the Brodsky Quartet, I'd quite often mention things like movements from symphonies and lieder or something, and be astounded that they didn't know them. We were talking about Kurt Weill, and Michael [Thomas] from the quartet admitted he had very little knowledge of his music. I guess because there's no quartet literature. They've dedicated their whole lives to this one area of the repertoire." Costello's ambitions are as varied as his pseudonyms, but he does not believe that his eclecticism dilutes his identity. He says, "Things become an obsession or a passion for me from time to time, and in the past there was music that I could adapt to my own work. It doesn't have to mean that you then attempt to write everything you hear. And I can appreciate people who have defined one style, or gone down that one way. Some people have a lot of range and some have made a potent thing out of going one individual way. I think you have to have the confidence that your voice is recognizable enough." Ultimately, his strong personality is exactly what ties his body of work together. Bob Dylan is a balladeer. Randy Newman and Paul Simon portray various characters in the first person. Costello usually peers at a situation with his trademark bitter grin. It is from his point of view, or at least an invented personality with a fairly consistent and recognizable tone. In one of the new album's best songs, "This Is Hell," he observes a disco full of pathetic people. Hell is defined as looking down and suddenly realizing you're wearing tacky trousers. Costello himself, as narrator, plays the bouncer who escorts us into the underworld. He provides a strong sense of author in his songs, sometimes to a fault. His attitude and presence can, in fact, be so imposing that he leaves little room for a listener to inhabit the song.
One of Brutal Youth's pleasant surprises is the fairly logical flow in most of the lyrics. The stories they tell are by no means cut and dry, but in general, Costello dares to make sense rather than just make impressions. He still leaves many things ambiguous, and quite a few lines float around for mere wordplay effect, like the phrase "life intimidates art" from "20% Amnesia." Fortunately, he is outgrowing his habit of establishing a narrative and then subverting it in an arbitrary and perverse fashion. In many earlier Costello lyrics, just as the story begins to unfold or a character develops, he changes direction or leads the listener to a dead end. This new album suggests that he has gained enough confidence to lay bare his intentions. "Just About Glad," for example, is all the more potent for its accessibility. He is looking back at a love affair never consummated: "Although the passion still flutters and flickers / It never got into our knickers." Because the premise is clear, the song can support the uncertainty of whether this character is really glad or just poignantly trying to convince himself that he is. Costello, however, insists that wayward story lines do not detract from his work. "It depends if people are really willing to give themselves over to it. If I wanted to put it all on a plate, then I wouldn't have written it like that. I'm always amazed when people [criticize] that kind of change of person speaking, or some obscure detail to the imagery that maybe is designed to be more evocative than directly communicating something. Do you not think that I knew I was doing that? It wasn't laziness or an accident. There are sections where things become vague, but they're calculated to be vague. More curious people respond to that as a stimulus to their imagination rather than an affront to their logic. I also got accused by the New York Times of not having a coherent world view. I thought, 'What do you mean, like Hitler? Or George Bush?" Almost anything can be attributed to artistic license, but this excuse holds up only when the song holds up. Many of Costello's lyrics are effectively poetic or funny without the benefit of a linear through-line. Many others simply lose their tautness due to language that sounds random or awkward. Even he has admitted in the past that sometimes in live concerts, when he tries to invest his more obscure songs with strong emotions, he can't remember what the emotion is supposed to be. Despite his attention to songcraft, he tends to walk away from his creations without seeing them through to the polished end. Cole Porter, whose lyrics often revel in ambiguity and multiple levels, would never have dreamed of using sloppiness as a device. Neither would Buddy Holly, for that matter. Costello challenges himself so admirable on so many fronts that it is a shame his rigor stops short of the last detail.
The next day, at a photography session for the cover of this magazine, his fever is worse and he tries to shake off a chill. Still, he is talkative as ever. He enjoys recounting the story about the stunt he pulled outside a Columbia Records convention. The young and unknown Costello set up his amp and propped up placards trying to make executives take notice and sign him up. He was promptly arrested. Today, with an entire staff of photographer's assistants buzzing about him, preening him, he has certainly come a long way. "I couldn't have foreseen the jump. It wasn't a foregone conclusion, and there were times when it all seemed to be in jeopardy. My first two and a half years, every single I made was in the top 30 in England. When it stops, you think, 'Hang on, this is the beginning of the end.' But of course, all it meant was that the novelty had worn off and I was doing things too diverse for a broad market." It is now clear that his diversity, which can frustrate even the best laid marketing strategies, has also contributed to sustaining his audience's long-term interest. As he puns presciently in "You'll Never Be a Man" from Trust, "I don't want to be first, I just want to last."
From the beginning, he has been putting on masks and putting on the public. And of course his work with classical groups risks accusations of putting on airs. Even the title of his second album, This Year's Model, warns us not to get too comfortable with any one image of him. On the album cover, Costello stands with an intense stare behind the camera, which is aimed at us, suggesting it is we who are really the posers. The Brutal Youth cover pictures the young Declan MacManus and a childhood friend dressed up in cowboy gear, ready for a shoot-out. Then, as in his songs today, confrontation was a game, a form of play.
He is planning a tour with the Attractions this summer, but he is reserving time for other projects. He writes music for films and is also working on the script, music, lyrics and orchestrations of a new musical. He recorded an original song called "Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness" with Marc Ribot and bassist Rob Wasserman on Wasserman's recent album, Trios. He is an avid classical concert-goer and has recently been commissioned to write a piece for a tercentenary celebration of English composer Henry Purcell. "I'm writing a whole group of fantasias, based on the fantasias of Purcell, or departing from the same forms and configurations. Now I've got to learn about the peculiarities of these more arcane instruments. It's a fabulous sound. I can't wait to do it."
As Costello slowly empties his Tylenol bottle, he chats with the photographer about classical recordings. He raves about his recent acquisitions, which include standards by the great violinist Fritz Kreisler, but he also mentions recherche items like a record by Bernard Kruysen, a Swiss-born baritone of slender voice who briefly won cult status in the late '60s. Costello is not an average enthusiast. His mind is organized and voracious. He speaks like a kid who is a fanatical comic book collector and also happens to be a superhero.
As the camera clicks throughout the conversation, he always manages to raise an eyebrow or lift a wry smile at exactly the right time. He is a musician first, but he is also a professional who knows how to invent himself to suit the moment. Just before the flashbulb emits another blinding light, he confesses that, despite the title Brutal Youth, "I had quite a pleasant childhood, actually."