"Love? I don't know what it means, really, and it doesn't exist in my songs," said a 23-year-old Elvis Costello back in 1977.
Now 37, Costello has changed his tune. His new album, the brilliant Mighty Like a Rose, has not one but two love songs, and one of them has a verse that goes like this: "In all the world there's only one true love / And finding it's hard enough / I bless whatever's in the sky above / For bringing me to you." Now, that's love.
These days, Costello isn't the myopic misanthrope who first peered out with bitter nerd fury from the cover of his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True. With his scraggly, shoulder-length mane, an abundant beard that should soon win him honorary membership in ZZ Top, and studious little gold-rim glasses, he's looking downright rabbinical, kind of like John Lennon on the cover of The Beatles Again. Literally and figuratively, Elvis Costello is letting his hair down.
Intentionally or not, Mighty echoes Costello's own career (and life?) thus far, starting off accusatory and ending up serene. He's well aware that the album starts off on some dark notes. "It talks about some bad stuff, like 'God, the fuckin's world's gone mad,'" says Costello. "But I wanted it to go somewhere—I didn't want it to end up being depressing."
The album opens with "The Other Side of Summer," an ecology song, of all things, but of course, a vituperative one. "The sun struggles up another beautiful day / And I felt glad in my own suspicious way," he sings. A beautiful Beach Boys-like chorus deplores the sad fate of the earth as the verses take acid swipes at the vapid mall culture that furthers it along. (Ironically, though Costello had planned to do the vocals at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, the noxious Los Angeles air hurt his throat too much to record there.)
The sequencing of the album was carefully planned. For instance, "The Other Side of Summer" leads straight into "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," an apocalyptic ditty about insect domination, which aims barbs at a certain person. The next song, "How to Be Dumb," aims barbs at perhaps the same person, who is rather cynical. That's followed by "All Grown Up," about a cynical person, etc., etc. The chain breaks now and then, but picks up again at the end, with a trio of very moving songs which seem to ask the musical question, "What's so funny about death, love, and understanding?"
And it's no accident that the entire album starts with venom and ends with honey. Simultaneously nursing a cup of tea, a glass of tomato juice (heavy on the Worcestershire, please), and a glass of club soda in a London bar, Costello gives away the show, but only a little. "I'm not saying this is a concept record or anything strange like that...," he says, with the tacit understanding that maybe it is.
"Doomsday" was composed to a rhythm pattern by legendary session drummer (and fifth Wilbury) Jim Keltner. Unlike anything Costello's ever done, it's a complex percussion-based arrangement with a cybernetic Bo Diddley beat, overlaid with all sorts of alien sounds. The outstanding grasshoppers-from-Mars guitar solo was quite a stretch for James Burton, a former Elvis Presley sideman more at home with rockabilly. "We said, 'Here's a challenge, James: We want you to be like, "Here come the bugs,"'" says Costello. "And he just went."
Several songs on Mighty Like a Rose sound like they're about specific people, but Costello won't say who. "To personalize the songs to that extent is a bit pointless," he says. "It's not to say that the initial impetus may have been something personal, but I don't want to exclude the possibility that other people might be able to identify something that they feel that way about. The songs are about nobody mostly, or everybody or anybody or any body."
But the next song, "How to Be Dumb," is surely a scathing attack on somebody — Costello sings the word "fucker" with just too much gusto for it not to be. "Don't you know how to be dumb?" goes the ingeniously double-edged chorus, and sure enough, it's a really dumb chorus, something like "Hang on Sloopy" or any number of I-IV-V classics (including R.E.M.'s "Stand," which Peter Buck once described as "a big dumb riff") but mostly it resembles "Like a Rolling Stone," another masterly piece of invective. While Costello admits he wrote the song with a specific person in mind, he denies it's about former Attraction Bruce Thomas and his new book, The Big Wheel.
As Bill Wyman's A Stone Alone taught us, beware the memoir-toting bass player. The Big Wheel is about as self-indulgent as they come; although it's not available in this country, four or five hilarious episodes make it almost worth hunting down. Horrendously overwritten, it's a non-stop whine session about life on the road with three other musicians known only as the Singer, the Drummer and the Keyboard Player. Thomas does get in little digs at Costello, but it's like a little schoolboy sticking out his tongue behind the teacher's back. Thomas reveals, for instance, that the Band nicknamed the Singer "the Pod," because he was shaped like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
"It's sort of embarrassing, really — and mostly for him," Costello says of The Big Wheel. "It's the Noel Redding/John Densmore school of book writing — 'Remember that day we all had cheese sandwiches and you all had four and I only had three?' It's at that level of pettiness. And it comes out and says it was miserable and demeaning for him to be in the group for 10 years. I think it's very sad for anybody to waste 10 years of their life."
Sample verse from "How to Be Dumb": "You could have walked out any time you wanted / But face it, you didn't have the courage/ I guess that makes you a full-time hypocrite."
"The saddest part," Costello continues, "is that you come to the unfortunate conclusion that the reason he did it for 10 years is that he can't do anything else. He certainly can't write. So I feel bad for him. We're not the best of friends, but he'll get over it."
Although Costello more or less officially jettisoned his former backing band, the Attractions, in 1987, rumor has it that he was actually thinking of reforming the band for Mighty Like a Rose, but Thomas' book put the kibosh on that idea.
Costello still looks back fondly on the Attractions era of his career. "I was really lucky — I had a really good band, and we made a lot of really good records and we didn't make very many bad tracks, let alone bad albums. We often made good records out of songs that really weren't that good. We had a very consistent band, and that's not a viable situation any more."
Instead, Costello is shaping up to be the Steely Dan of the '90s, in that his albums are packed with the hottest musicians (and producers) of the day. Besides James Burton and Jim Keltner, there's former Elvis P. sideman Jerry Scheff, ex-Attraction Pete Thomas, Nick Lowe, Benmont .Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, and avant-guitar ace Marc Ribot. "I really appreciate really good players," Costello says, "particularly when they're not very self-conscious about their technique. And none of the people I'm playing with now, as technically excellent as many of them are, are show-offs who want to demonstrate that technique at every turn. I can't work with people like that — there isn't room for it in the music."
After three albums, more or less, the lineup has become a well-oiled machine — "It works in the sense of being like a group, without the unpleasant, messy responsibility," says Costello. He's ,toured with most of them, and before beginning this album, they recorded an upcoming album of r&b classics and obscurities together. Mighty Like a Rose coproducer Kevin Killen (U2) has now worked with Costello on three albums and coproducer Mitchell Froom (Bonnie Raitt, Crowded House) on two.
On Costello's previous album from 1989, Spike, idiosyncratic musicians including Roger McGuinn, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and various Irish traditional musicians provided the instrumental color simply by sounding like themselves — "It was kind of like sampling, although done with a bit more musical understanding," says Costello. But with Mighty, a basic core group appeared on all the tracks, and studio embellishments, as well as strings and horns, differentiate the sound of each track. Froom tended toward song structure and the musical aspects of the sequencing strategy, while Killen's contribution was more technical, although in the modern recording studio, the lines necessarily blur.
"Before there were 16 or 24 tracks, people had to be bold," Costello observes. "Although it's good to use the advantages of multi-track recording, you've also got to trick yourself into being as bold as people used to be. That's why records don't have the panache they used to. There's elements of the way people went about recording in the '60s which I really admire, and there's elements which I find limiting. So you have to combine the two elements into what I call the modern way to record."
Curiously, "the modern way to record" meant that there were sometimes as many as eight musicians playing at once, almost unheard of in this day of multi-tracking and MIDI. "Georgie and Her Rival" used three keyboard players at once, and the whole album is wall-to-wall with subtle effects and intriguing counter-melodies, but not like the crazed rococo sprawl that was the 1982-issue Imperial Bedroom.
"It was kind of an arranged record," Costello says with some understatement. "Even though there are moments where it's very spontaneous sounding, there's always a formal element in there. Motown used to have a great, stomping r&b rhythm section, but then there'd be some really well-placed orchestral coloring that would make the difference between being kind of stock and being something that really caught your ear. That's sort of a forgotten art."
So Mighty makes for great headphone listening, especially on compact disc. As an artist, Costello likes the CD — his albums have always run long, so groove-cramming was always an issue. And since he favors relatively crude equipment, he hasn't detected digital's alleged over-brightness.
As a record buyer, Costello likes classical and jazz on CD, but some of the heavily overdubbed studio creations of '60s rock don't fare so well. "I would still much rather listen to my old vinyl With the Beatles than any digital remastering. But on the other hand, there's records now of Caruso on CD which are cleaned up so you can hear what he's doing, and it's amazing because it's like time travel. Here he is, it's 1905, and he's there singing as large as life. I think that's magical."
But Costello remains wary of the CD revolution — "It could be just commercial motives — they're making you buy everything twice."
Costello is a walking musical encyclopedia, which isn't surprising considering his background — his father was a big-band trumpeter, and his mother worked at a record store. "I started listening to records before I could really walk, apparently," says Costello. "I was like Nipper.
"I love my old records, vinyl, CD or whatever shape they come in. There's records I can't be without. I love it when there's new music of any kind that I can get into, and I'm really delighted when there's a new band I hear that I love, although I hear that less and less. Now, I go to the concert hall more than I go to rock 'n' roll gigs. Classical has been my obsession for the last three years."
In fact, Costello says he sometimes goes out every night for two weeks to see classical music; after the interview, he was off to see a program of Mozart and Mahler. Classical strains pop up all over Mighty, particularly on tracks such as "After the Fall" and "Harpies Bizarre."
"Classical helps you get a measure of your own importance — or self-importance or desire to be not so self-important — if you put yourself up against some of the great stuff," says Costello. "And it gives you a fresh look at all your little trials and tribulations, the frustrations with the business — radio, the necessity of video, censorship...."
For all of Costello's outspoken left-leaning political views, he has some surprising views on censorship. "I mean, all these people who are whining so much about this stuff, if they had to live in a country where they had some really serious cultural suppression — like for instance Ireland up until 40 years ago, or Russia up until about seven years ago — if they had to deal with the artistic realities and decisions you have to make in those circumstances, then they'd have something to complain about. All they care about is how big their dick is. It's just bollocks. Its pitiful, really."
Another thing Costello thinks is pitiful is the much-ballyhooed Manchester music scene. "I can sort of understand London being the center of the universe — in the pop sense, not the cosmic sense; I could understand Liverpool, I could even understand Minneapolis or Athens or Akron. But Manchester isn't the center of anything, except rain and bad football teams, maybe." Costello admits to liking a couple of Happy Mondays songs, but generally has little use for Manchester. "I don't like the studied boredom of a lot of it. It just seems like they don't want to try hard enough for it to be any good — in case they get caught believing in something."
Pop music he does like includes upcoming albums by pop pixie Sam Phillips and former Dylan sidekick Bob Neuwirth. He also gives the thumbs-up to Roger McGuinn's Back From Rio album (to which he just happened to have contributed a track) and choice portions of They Might Be Giants' ouevre. "I don't like a lot of serious groups," says Costello. Why not? "I don't think they're very serious," he quips, adding, "They're not as good as they think they are — nobody's as good as they think they are."
Well, how about you? "I'm definitely not as good as I think I am!
"I have a theory of success in this business," he confides. "Being as I'm an old guy, I can pass this on to people because I don't need it any more. You tell people you're a genius 80 percent of the time and then they probably believe you 40 percent of the time. And you're actually good 20 percent of the time, so they always think you're twice as good as you really are. It worked for me!"
And some people are already taking that advice — just as there used to be "New Dylans," there are now "New Costellos" like Michael Penn and Lenny Kravitz. How does the man himself feel about the magpies? "It's just time, isn't it? If you stick around long enough, somebody will try and pick up on something you did. I don't know any of these people — my attention has been brought to a couple of their names, but I'm not familiar with anything they did."
But surely he must have heard of the most unabashed Costello clone, John Wesley Harding. "Yeah. But it's such a boring record. The bit of it I heard just sounded like a bad demo of somebody imitating me 12 years ago."
Funny thing is, that "bad demo" has both Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas on it. "To be honest, I think it diminishes them as musicians," says Costello. "I've said so to Pete — the other guy, I could care less. I've heard Harding's a very nice man and I'm sure he means well, but why in the world he wants to sound like a sound that's already proven to be so completely uncommercial is beyond me. And why anyone would sign him with that sound...."
Not only has Costello moved on to a rootsier, more eclectic sound that reflects his encyclopedic knowledge of music, he's also taken a new approach to his lyrics — they're not so much, as Bruce Thomas described them in his book, "like a chainsaw through a dictionary" (a phrase Thomas himself copped from Costello's "Our Little Angel") with their tortuously extended puns. Although he's still a master of the abstruse conundrum, more and more, Elvis Costello is just talking normal. "Man, you can wear that stuff out," he says of his previously prolix poetry. "It gets boring. It was great then, as sort of a wiseguy thing, as a defense mechanism. And it really draws the ear. I'm not putting it down — it worked very well. It sounds arrogant and patronizing to say I grew out of it, but I just didn't want to do it any more.
"And I got a bit bored with reading the phrase 'dense wordplay,' in writeups of what I do," he continues. "Where is this 'dense wordplay'? They must have been reviewing a record that came out seven years ago! You can't complain, because everybody gets it: Bob Dylan is 'enigmatic,' Van Morrison is 'grumpy,' R.E.M. are 'mystic,' Prince is 'difficult.' Mine is 'dense wordplay.' It's all bollocks."
Costello is a very busy man. He's on the board of directors of the excellent U.K. reissue label, Demon Records, although he says he mainly makes rerelease suggestions now and then. Right now, he's busy coscoring a 10-and-a-half hour British television production enigmatically titled GBH ("It would take me half an hour to explain the plot").
Out soon is his appearance on a Charles Mingus tribute album produced by the Orson Welles of pop, Hal Willner. The track, a rare Mingus vocal composition titled "Weird Nightmare," also features Michael Blair, Marc Ribot, and several instruments invented by the late master of the microtone, Harry Partch.
Just out on the Grateful Dead tribute album, Deadicated, is Costello's version of the Dead's "Ship of Fools," which features his band from the covers album. And he's collaborated with bassist Rob Wasserman and Marc Ribot on a track he wrote for Wasserman's upcoming Trios album — "It sounds kind of like 'High Hopes,'" — says Costello with a disconcertingly serious look on his face.
Then there was last Christmas' nearly 50-track retrospective, Girls, Girls, Girls, compiled by Costello himself, complete with puckish, enigmatic song-by-song liner notes. It was a difficult job to collect so many songs from so many albums in so many styles; Costello's rather musicianly solution was to group the rhythmic songs together, then the melodic songs, then the ballads, then the social commentary songs such as "Tokyo Storm Warning," "Clubland" and the brilliant "Shipbuilding."
"It was done in the spirit of an obscure rerelease, which is what its turned out to be, particularly in America," says Costello bitterly. "Columbia, with their usual panache, have just thrown it in the bin like every other record I did in the previous 10 years. I don't even know why they bothered to release it — I would have made more money on it as an import."
It turns out the title is typically cryptic. "It's my tribute to that great Marvin Gaye album, Here My Dear. If you notice, the title of Girls, Girls, Girls is really a monetary equation [Girls + £ + Girls = $ & Girls]. I'll leave it at that."
Mighty includes two songs written with Paul McCartney: "So Like Candy" and "Playboy to a Man," which were penned in the same sessions which produced "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws," from Spike and "My Brave Face," "You Want Her Too," "Don't Be Careless Love" and "That Day Is Done" from McCartney's Flowers in the Dirt. "Candy" and "Playboy" were supposed to be on Flowers, but when McCartney cut them from the album, Costello asked for them back (he'd been doing "Candy" live for some time, anyway). The haunting "So Like Candy" is a simple "the one who got away" song gussied up with the album's only extended pun. Costello blows away that mood with the rocking "Playboy to a Man," on which he sings remarkably like Cameo's studly leader, Larry Blackmon, a nice irony since the song depicts a womanizer who's finally met his match.
The next track, "Sweet Fear," might be the song that the smitten playboy might sing to his lover — Costello's chain sequence is back in effect. After briefly quoting the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," it turns into a majestic midtempo r&b-style ballad; an extremely moving love song, its highlighted by what might well be his best vocal ever. Incredibly, Costello ups the ante even further with "Broken," a heart-stopping Celtic drone written by his wife, former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan. Above a mysterious electronic sea, Costello intones, "And if you leave me then I am broken / And only death remains."
And sure enough, death is the theme of the last song, "Couldn't Call It Unexpected," a bittersweet Irish waltz which Costello says is a companion piece to "The Other Side of Summer." The last words of the song, and of the whole album, are, "Please don't let me fear anything I can't explain / I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again."
Which is the most optimistic thing one can expect to hear from a man who used to say his songs were motivated solely by "revenge and guilt," a man whom some might call cynical. "But I don't think I'm cynical," Costello says. "I've never been cynical. Realistic, maybe."