Elvis Costello reckons that he is getting too old to be a pop singer and avers that "most classical singers would just be getting into their prime now." This is not to suggest that he is about to become one, although on the new opus there is evidence of a somewhat operatic, torchy style of singing. No surprises then when Elvis tells me that most of his favourite singers are dead, and includes John McCormack as one of them.
I express a particular liking for the track "The First To Leave," which Nat King Cole could easily croon his way through. "Oh that's great," Elvis replies warmly, "because obviously with a record like this, there's an awful lot to get to grips with, particularly in the modem world where everything is supposed to be instant. Therefore it's gratifying to hear that somebody responded to a song that far into it, and not perhaps one with the most immediate feel to it…" The song takes the form of a letter written by a believer in the afterlife to his atheist lover, which she reads after his death.
What this writer was looking forward to was unlocking the secrets that lurk in the often densely-patterned music. "Well that's all that we can ask of the audience," Elvis explains. "It would be extremely easy for glib critics to just write this thing off as some sort of over-reaching experiment which doesn't quite come off."
Critics who regard his new direction as a weakness — "oh he's sold out now, he couldn't do rock 'n' roll" — he regards as "sad people, i literally pity them." By his own admission, as "a reasonably good lapsed Catholic" he has a reasonable quota of faith, in audiences rather than in critics, and at The Gate where the music got an airing last October, he recalls happily "the fur coats sitting beside the leather jackets."
Philip King's film of The Juliet Letters, already seen on RTE and BBC television and made on a bare, leaf-strewn set at Ardmore, has an austere quality which is in tune with the music. Were they tempted to go down the road of the luxuriant video, courtyards in Verona et al? "Well we toyed with the idea, mainly just so we could sell it," laughs Elvis, "it would make a nice travelogue, even if they didn't like the music!" Ultimately, there was a preference for "a direct line" to the audience, without video and production getting in the way.
Born Dedan McManus in 1955, as a child in Liverpool Elvis "didn't conceive of the fact that music even had different names." He never had any difficulties with classical music. "One of the things that people have a problem with who weren't brought up to love classical is that it was either their teachers or their parents' music. Their music was either rock 'n' roll or jazz which they liked in reaction to classical music. I was extremely fortunate in that, my parents both being involved in different ways in a professional context, they had an open mind about all music and had very, very broad tastes." His father, who featured on recent Costello recordings, once played with Joe Loss.
Does he ever wish that artists such as Van Morrison and Bob Dylan would be as adventurous as he? "I think it's a different thing that they are doing. I think that both those artists have really kept true to the instinct of the original music which their own is derived from, the model of folk blues and jazz musicians. In the case of Van Morrison, his first wholly solo album, Astral Weeks is still the most adventurous record made in the rock medium, and there hasn't really been a record with that amount of daring made since. So he doesn't want to look for that, he's got his language and he finds that that makes him a great artist. Not all of their work is great, it's facile to say that, but it's not a question of whether they venture one way or another."
He extends his argument further, "Blues artists in particular have a language of music which they refine and refine — some people would say they repeat themselves but I would defy anybody to go to see BB King on a good night … even though he might play the same three notes, there is an extremely economical art form going on which would be mysterious to a note-spinning violinist or even a guitarist."
Costello himself, although not a professional classical musician as the members of the Brodsky Quartet are, actually contributed to much of the musical score. Did he imagine back in 1977 that he would be writing this type of music fifteen years on. "Well, in '771 hadn't the faintest suspicion that I would even last a year," he replies, "I had no long-term plans."
Some years back, he recorded his savage indictment of Margaret Thatcher, the controversial "Tramp the Dirt Down." He's glad she's no longer prime minister. "Her particular brand of tyranny — and I think that's not too strong a word — had just become unacceptable. She'd become deluded to the extent that she thought she could Just do anything." Did he ever hear that this piece of Vitriol penned by him had come to her notice? 'No,I really don't think it would register on her. If there was some way that you could have put Kylie Minogue in a basque on Top of The Pops singing it at the height of her Stock, Aiken and Waterman phase, maybe that would have registered."
However, he also thinks that little has changed since her departure. "The wolves have just got bigger sheep-skin coats on these days, and I think that there is a grave mistake in constantly portraying John Major as a clown, as opposed to the nasty little shit that he really is," Elvis adds. The trouble with most of the Tory government is that they don't have any soul. John Patten, Minister for Education, is supposed to have turned down the Heritage ministry because he said he didn't like music. I think anybody who says such a thing should be disqualified from holding public office."
Although he lives now in Ireland, dose to Dublin, his vote is still in England, and he hasn't as yet looked into the legalities of Irish nationality. "Ireland keeps a very jealously guarded sense of being Irish and it is rightly deeply suspicious of all those 'Oirish' people in America who interfere. On the other hand, I am just another result of a huge amount of displaced people — one half of my family would, in happier political history, still be living in the country in which they were born.
"However, I don't think that that gives me the right to say whether or not I like Albert Rey olds better than Dick Spring," he continues. "in the long run, what matters is whether the quality of life for the majority of people can be improved by this type of balancing act which is going on in a lot of countries, a lot of it an unhappy compromise" He is very happy to have moved to Ireland with his wife Gait, although pressures of work mean he does not spend as much time here as he would like to.
Some of the songs, which also received lyrical input from The Brodskys, deal with harrowing issues of life and love, while one deals with suicide. In one case, all five members of the project had to go home and write an imagined suicide letter. "It was very difficult to come into class and read them out, which is what we had to do," Paul Cassidy, the viola player with the Brodsky Quartet, explains. "To begin with, it was slightly embarrassing listening to other people, because you get that schoolgirl giggle element. There's no getting away from it, if you're going to write some telling lyric it is coming from within." Some critical reservations have been expressed about The Juliet Letters, with one critic suggesting what he saw as "a lack of cohesive melody" at certain points throughout the album. " Melody is a very personal thing, and l think that this record needs listening to," Paul counters. "Somebody like Elvis Costello can write pop tunes if they want, but in a way, what's the point? The more you look into a piece of music. the more you kind of do away with the obvious, and what you are really looking for is something a bit more esoteric."
A repeat performance in Ireland will not feature on the world tour which kicks off in Glasgow on February 22. "We've got one month to tour the world and we had to be mighty selective." Paul comments. "There is a life after the world tour, however, and we hope to be playing this piece for years to come, so please get someone to invite us over there and we'll come running! l would dearly love to go up to Derry and play it,"