The hind leg replacement unit of the local donkey hospital is on red alert. Elvis Costello hits the bar talking, runs off at the mouth for two hours and then winds down with a bit of a natter. He only pauses once to apologise. He's had bronchitis, you see, so he can't speak as much as he'd like to.
The conversation comes in great gushes. Tumbling torrents of swirling assertions and cascading qualifications sweep you out of your depth where sinister sub-clauses and currents of cleverness attempt to drag you under. At times, all that seems to keep him on course is a keen sense of direction and a firm grasp of grammar.
Mention of any one song title can send him topic-surfing across such apparently disparate subject matter as Salvador Dali's nieces, Paul Daniels's hair-pieces, saloon bar moralists, secondary school examining boards, art exhibitions in Paris, road conditions in Florence, Norman Tebbitt's skewed sensibilities, Keith Moon's spanking snare sound, the majesty of Smokey, the sensuality of a minuet and, presumably due to oxygen deprivation by this point, the inherent difficulties in dating a women who is 50 feet tall.
The reason Elvis Costello is treating us to these unstoppable soliloquies and bizarre bungee jumps of logic this afternoon is a new 15-track LP recorded, some will be bunting-hoistingly relieved to hear, with his old spars The Attractions, from whom he has enjoyed a highly successful trial separation since 1987. Entitled Brutal Youth, the album is a peach: clanking drums; effortlessly eloquent bass; guitar playing that could inflict a flat-top at 50 paces; chainsaw-through-dictionary lyrics and choruses you could land a helicopter on. Needless to say, If This Year's Model, Get Happy!! and Blood And Chocolate ever got involved in an unsavoury ménage à trois...
Despite a disarming courteousness and a genteel, well-spoken demeanour, Costello can sound brusque, even brutal in the black-and-white world of print. Maintaining fiercely steady eye contact from behind oblong, tortoiseshell spectacles (above which his eyebrows arch, engaged in permanent polite enquiry), he doesn't so much consider your questions as piranha them.
Q: Elvis, your new album. Not bad, is it?
Well, I like it!
Q: What sort of reviews do you anticipate?
I neither know nor care.
Q: You've taken reviews quite personally in the past, occasionally reacting in a rather hands-on way.
I don't really want to get into this. That's only happened if they contained something unfair, something I perceived as an injustice — and it's a minor injustice compared to the real injustices of life — but with The Juliet Letters, for instance, I think I had some responsibility towards the members of The Brodsky Quartet. When you stay in a tiny hothouse of a scene like it is in England and you've been in a position of prominence for a number of years, then inevitably certain feuds and prejudices build up in my mind and in the minds of commentators. But to drag a bunch of very dedicated musicians into that squabble isn't on. If some tedious twerp like Tony Parsons wants to have a go at me because I've betrayed my 1977 roots, then I think it's sad that it has to be visited on a bunch of sincere, open-hearted people who have nothing to do with it. That sort of stuff I'll take issue with, but in the long run it's not very important. Let's keep it in proportion. I'm not this embittered and twisted person.
Q: Was there a specific moment when you decided to reconvene The Attractions?
We didn't sit down and have a meeting and decide to do the band thing again. I was working on The Juliet Letters when Pete Thomas told me that Wendy James was looking for a song. So I did a whole album for her. We did it as a kind of gag — 10 songs in a weekend.
Q: Were you disappointed when her album eventually stiffed?
I had nothing to do with how it sounded as a record and I don't know her at all, but I just took some fragmentary things from the odd newspaper article which told me what she was supposed to represent and then invented a character for her which she could probably play. It was like an acting job really. I don't think I had any problem with her acting but the producer rather let the side down by making it sound so plastic.
Q: Some of the singing was criminal.
No-one ever said she was Kiri Te Kanawa. I don't think she pretends to be. I don't really have a big bee in my bonnet about this. It only took a couple of days to do it and I'm neither responsible for what it sounds like nor could I particularly care less.
Q: You say you wrote for a character but some of the songs seemed quite specifically and pointedly about her.
Well if you create a public image totally out of superficial devices then any similarity to people living or dead is entirely intentional (laughs). We're getting off the point a bit here but if you're going to have that kind of career, if you're going to be a kind of sex kitten character, then at a certain point in your life you're going to have to develop a sense of humour about it. So those songs were about developing that sense of humour and I don't know if she got some of it or all of it.
Q: Aaanyway, The Attractions...
Yes, so Pete and I made some demos, literally demonstration recordings in the old songwriting sense of the word demo, for her to follow. We cut the 10 songs in Pathway, which is where I made my first record and which is a great little eight-track place for a certain type of music. Then I did some of my own stuff and began recording with me playing virtually all the instruments and Pete on drums, because I can't play drums to save my life. Then I ran into Steve (Nieve) when he was doing a Sam Moore session. I'd written a song for Sam Moore and popped down to see how the recording was going. I hadn't seen Steve for some time but we got talking and I asked him to come down and play some piano. Then I wrote another batch of songs and thought I'd ask Nick Lowe to play the bass because a lot of them were up his particular alley. So Nick came down and dug all the songs apart from a couple which he said he didn't feel comfortable with structurally. At this point I asked Mitchell Froom to produce the record because a few of tracks really needed another set of ears — with the trickier tracks you're not always the best judge because you're running back and forth like an idiot — and Bruce (Thomas) had been working with Mitch on Suzanne Vega's record, so he was the obvious choice.
Q: But hadn't you fallen out badly with Bruce Thomas?
Yeah, we hadn't been talking for a couple of years but when it came to it, all of that stuff is a lot less important than what we could be doing, ie playing. He's always been a great bassist but maybe we just saw too much of one another over a very intense period of working.
Q: Did you read his book, The Big Wheel (a fairly acid account of life on the road in the late '80s with Costello and The Attractions)?
I glanced through it, yeah.
Q: What did it make you feel?
It made me feel a bit sad for Bruce that he hadn't enjoyed himself for 10 years because I had a ball. Bruce is a couple of years older than the rest of us and maybe some of the things we were doing, which seemed like great fun to us, seemed crass and stupid to him because he'd done them the last time around. I'm not saying he's ancient, but he'd been about, and sometimes you'd say, What are you being so uptight about? And it would be that he'd done the childish thing which you thought was hilarious on another tour with an earlier band.
Q: At one point in the book, he describes the band as a group of card players sitting around a table all ostensibly playing together but actually playing different games. Was that accurate?
I've no idea. I don't want to get into it in a big way. When you're a group, it's just like any relationship — you change and you, laughably, grow up and develop, evolve at different rates. Some people repeat the same behaviour for a long period, some tire of it quicker, some become very austere at times and very indulgent at others.
Q: It sounded like a gruelling time — three world tours in three years.
What? Gruelling like being down a mine? I don't think so. Presented with the physical challenge of doing those things, it would daunt most people. But we did them and we didn't always carry it off great but a lot of the time we did. To be honest, I can't remember a lot of it and it doesn't really bother me that I can't.
Q: So who will play bass when you tour?
Q: Do you find it strange that the two albums Nick Lowe was previously involved in, Get Happy!! and Blood And Chocolate, were your most mental?
Yes. Funny that (laughs).
Q: Were you aware that after Spike and Mighty Like A Rose, people were keen for you to get back to pared-down pop songs?
Well those were fairly experimental and ambitious albums and inevitably, because they're experiments, they don't always work. At least there are rule books to tell you if they'll work or not.
Q: How do you feel about those two albums now?
I love them both.
Q: Do they hold up for you?
Very much so, much more so than some of the other records I've made. I'm very glad I did them because if I hadn't done them, I wouldn't be doing this now. You can view the studio as one of two things: a tiny box that you play inside of or as a giant piece of paper, a musical score. I think Lowell George was the first person that I read saying that the 24-track recording studio is like a score. In a sense, those two albums are more orchestrated, in the obvious sense, but over the course of the strange black hole in my career that has become known as The Beard Years, the "received wisdom" — which I've always seen as a euphemism for "smug opinionating" or "ill-informed guess-work" — is that these are gigantic wedding cakes of records. The truth is there are some tracks which are very detailed and may not be to some people's taste but, particularly on Mighty Like A Rose, there is some very sparse combo stuff — "After The Fall," "So Like Candy," even "Hurry Down Doomsday."
Q: They still divided your audience. There were heated debates.
There's a certain breed of human being though, isn't there? There's a part of me which is flattered that people should get so hot under the collar but there's another part of me which thinks, I hope I never get trapped in a lift with these nasty little trainspotters.
Q: But it went beyond trainspotters. You lost genuine fans.
It's just music for God's sake, relax, you know? It's my job to make records but if you don't like them, don't listen. Nobody's forcing you to. You don't have to part with your money. There is no con trick implied. It does not erase your old records to listen to my new record. OK, people didn't buy those records in great numbers but making music isn't like climbing Everest. You don't start at base camp with your first record and make your way up to the summit. You go wherever your interest or imagination takes you — if you've got any.
Q: But you must be aware of a certain "Thank God, he's back to basic pop songs again"?
I'd have been bored to death if I'd just done combo records since 1978. If someone had told me then that I must not deviate from that blueprint, I would have stopped years ago. It would be awful.
Q: Do you feel relieved to be back with The Attractions?
Look, you're not going to get me to admit I made a mistake. I'm not going to make a big confession and say I was the wayward prodigal son and now I have returned and I repent. Oh, he went off and grew a beard and made weird music but now he's back and he's sorry. I'm not sorry. It's not like I've suddenly seen the light. This isn't Saint Paul, it's music.
Q: Will you be "re-interpreting" your old classics live like Bob Dylan does?
I don't know if you have to go to Dylan's perverse extreme. I've done it in the past to wind people up. No doubt some people will see me and Marc Ribot tearing up "Watching The Detectives" as some sort of sacrilege but it's great fun from our point of view. Should you give the audience a say about this? Absolutely not.
Q: In the song, "London's Brilliant Parade," you manage to avoid the obvious "Hasn't London deteriorated?" sentiment.
It's a funny song, that one. I didn't want it to be a pious "Oh, the poor people on the street" song. Because, heaven knows, there are so many more talented commentators when it comes to that subject, like Phil Collins, doing it for me. And voting Tory at the same time which is pretty ironic. I think anyone with any intelligence knows about homelessness. Me saying it doesn't change the fact.
Q: Are you going to print the lyrics on this album?
No. I quite like the idea of people maybe getting them wrong. I didn't print any words for five albums and I've chosen on this occasion not to print them again. It'll probably infuriate some people but I think it's sometimes good to listen to a record without knowing everything. Sitting there reading it like it's a hymn book or something. There's too much piety with certain song-writers. Dylan's really great albums never had the lyrics printed. The original Blood On The Tracks didn't have the words. It had an essay by Peter Hammill.
Q: If they ever printed the lyrics to Get Happy!! people would be saying, Oh so that's what he's singing!
(Laughs) But isn't that fun? I much preferred R.E.M. before they started giving you the words. It was much less interesting when I found out what he was singing. It seems a shame to write them down because the fumbling for the thought in the moment that he did it, with a lovely expression of the voice, was actually more touching. He always stops short of really letting go, doesn't he? He's not a full-out type of singer. But I loved the first two albums when you didn't know what the hell he was on about. I found the same thing with PJ Harvey. The atmosphere of it is great but I had no idea what she was singing about and do you know what? I don't care. I'm not the right age. From what I could gather, it seemed to be a lot about blood and fucking. But I don't need to pore over it like someone who identifies directly with her. I don't want to be one of these middle-aged guys who turns up with the baseball hat on the wrong way round.
Q: Although you've written your fair share of blood and fucking songs.
And it's still there in some of the songs. I guess the question is whether it's there all the time or whether it's commentary. There's a period in your life where you write directly from your own experiences and there's a period when you use the things you know and the tools you have to write with the same conviction and, sometimes, with the same degree of personal involvement. People see distance as cowardice. It's not. It's a way of getting right to the point of the thing without the laziness of this wrist-slashing thing that's currently so popular in America. Redemption isn't achieved by yelling at the top of your voice on a rock 'n' roll record. In fact, it's the opposite, it's just drawing attention to yourself. There's no art or craft or true expression in that. It's just a lot of bawling.
Q: You used to have this image of sitting at the typewriter with steam coming out of your ears. There' s nothing on the new album with the fury of "Lipstick Vogue," the malevolence of "I Want You" or the venom of "Tramp The Dirt Down."
With a song like "Tramp The Dirt Down," you knew you had the subject in your sights and you were training the red light directly on to the target. You cannot focus on something as spongy and mediocre as this current government with any kind of venom. It would be energy wasted. Although I think there's a danger with this government that they'll just be seen as the little grey man on Spitting Image. While that's funny, too much of that kind of thinking makes us lazy and lets them off the hook. You don't get to be Prime Minister by being a sad fool walking round with your underpants on your head. The song "20% Amnesia" is about those little things we forget. Like before the last election when an opportunity for change presented itself — not a very attractive alternative, admittedly — and the 20 per cent tax bribe entered the equation and overnight people lost their fucking nerve.
Q: Can you still personally muster as much hatred for Margaret Thatcher now as you could then?
Yes. She let the cat out of the bag and the aperture is now too small to ever get that cat back in. And it's lurking out there somewhere waiting to strike again. And another go-round like that would really see off the people who have already been cut off from any decent notion of life.
Q: Does your stigma as a punsmith bother you?
It doesn't really bother me. It's a critic's thing really. And I'm more interested that a critic, as part of the general public, gets what I'm saying rather than clock up the number of word-plays there are. I can honestly say there are no word-plays at all on this album that were set up as such. Someone asked me if the song Kinder Murder was a pun in German. Well, that kind of pan-European pun is beyond even me.
Q: Do you listen to techno?
What for? Isn't it something that you have to experience in a certain situation? I don't go to those places, why would I bother to buy the records? It's not really designed to be listened to, it's designed to be experienced at high volume in an environment that I wouldn't choose to visit. It can't teach me anything about music and it's not emotional. That's the whole point of it.
Q: Are you a dancer?
Nick Lowe calls it The Dance Of The Flaming Accountant. Did you see that great documentary where Alan Bennett went up to the hotel in Harrogate and he was watching some insurance salesmen dancing and he said "... these people who have left embarrassment behind"? But I think, So what if people are dancing like that? They're happy, aren't they? That was the great thing about that Pan's People programme. They were so naff. Totally devoid of grace or elegance. And they couldn't dance in time together. Yet there was something kitsch about it that people responded to and thought was sexy.
Q: Have you heard anyone who's made you fear for your job?
I don't think anyone would want my job (laughs). PJ Harvey I really liked for the sound and the overall commitment. I loved Björk's album. To me it sounded like a dance album arranged for a jazz quartet. I've always liked her voice though. I remember going to see her with The Sugarcubes and your man with the trumpet was shouting his fucking head off. I was like, Shuddup! I can't hear her sing! Lyrically, I liked Aimee Mann's record. She has that ability, like Chris Difford, to draw you into her world through sheer attention to detail. To me, it's very reassuring that three of the albums I've liked most are by women. The guys are just boring at the moment, the young guys more boring than anyone. There's too much shoe-gazing and "Help me feel my pain" music and "Mummy I wet my trousers again" music. It just doesn't say anything to me.
Q: What's the worst song you've ever written?
I dunno. That's what you guys are for.
Q: OK. "Party Party" was crap.
Total crap! There was one reasonable line in it about the interior design being by Picasso. You know when you're at a party and you're drunk and you start to marvel at the weird wallpaper? But the rest of the song was fucking nonsense. So was the film.
Q: Worst couplet?
No idea. My worst one is probably something I liked at the time just for the sheer wilfulness of it.
Q: How about You lack lust / You're so lack lustre from "Possession"?
No. I won't have that. I stand by that line. I have no problem with that.
Q: Has anyone mentioned that The Juliet Letters is a dead-cert "boudoir" album?
No. A boudoir album? It is a very sensual record. It might be the way, fortunately, my voice complemented the timbre of the quartet. And there are some very intimate details revealed. It's a nice idea but, let's face it, it's hardly Let's Get It On.
Q: Have you noticed that your career has followed a similar trajectory to Woody Allen's?
No, that's a new one to me. I used to get compared to him although that was mainly due to the glasses. But I see what you mean: started off with quite commercial stuff and then went on to things that he really wanted to do. Then went back to more populist things? Maybe. There are worse things to be called than The Woody Allen Of Pop, aren't there?
Q: Congratulation, finally, for re-introducing the word "knickers" (two instances on Brutal Youth) into the pop vocabulary.
Well, that's something to chisel on my tombstone, isn't it? (laughs) It's all been worthwhile.
Interview satisfactorily concluded, he settles back for a chat. Like he hasn't talked enough. Quaffing down camomile tea to soothe a ragged throat, he enthuses about some ancient folk songs he managed to exhume thanks to a hillbilly library, expresses regret that he never learnt Latin at school, recalls an enchanting interview Leonard Cohen gave on BBC2 ("My favourite performance of last year"), wonders aloud why Johnny Cash rejected a song he tailor-wrote for him, ponders the wisdom of releasing his own collection of cover versions, marvels at the jaw-dropping greatness of Roman mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, reflects upon the exhilaration of seeing Pearl Jam live and the disappointment of buying their album and shudders as he recalls the trouser-darkening moment when during Neil Young's set at Slane Castle last year, Booker T called Costello from the wings and pointing to his Hammond organ said, "Here, you take a verse."
He leaves us with this: a quote from a little-known Smokey Robinson song called "No More Tear-Stained Make-Up": "No sponge has the power / To absorb the shower / Of what lipstick, pancake and powder / Couldn't cover".
And on that note, the Woody Allen Of Pop shuts up, shakes hands and shoots off. He's got to go and talk to some people.