As so often, the image is contradicted by reality. Admittedly Elvis Costello is prolix, agonising over three words when one will do, and there's a justifiable smidgen of irritability at lazy questions. But the man with a soft voice, sitting in a London hotel wearing nerdish horn rims and a three-piece suit — even though its uncomfortably hot outside — is far removed from the angry rocker who (according to his song "Tramp the Dirt Down") wanted to live long enough to dance on Margaret Thatcher's grave.
Costello's reputation as a monosyllabic poseur makes him unnerving, and he can be truculent. He's a 'bit of a workaholic, edgy, and lacking manufactured pop star charisma, but good for him. We need an antidote to the bland.
But hang on… his latest incarnation is as a love balladeer much to the annoyance of some fans, bewildered by the twists and turns of his pleasingly eclectic career.
To date Costello's made more than 20 albums, collaborated with Burt Bacharach, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and The Brodsky Quartet, written an Italian ballet based on Midsummer Night's Dream, and music for Alan Bleasdale's TV opuses Jake's Progress and GBH. He even acted as a magician in Bleasdale's film, No Surrender.
"There's talk about me doing more substantial acting. I enjoy working with Alan. I'm not sure television is worthy of him. It's run by morons, and those making creative decisions are mediocre, their aspirations constrained by the business environment. I watched The Great War on DVD. I'd seen it first as a child, and was shocked at how much more it assumes on the part of the audience than anything done today."
Costello's often angry lyrics were softened in last year's album, North, which metamorphoses from his second divorce ("You Left Me in the Dark") to falling in love with his third wife, acclaimed Canadian singer Diana Krall ("I'm In The Mood Again"), whom he met when they co-presented the Song of the Year award at the 2002 Grammys. They married at Elton John's Windsor home last Christmas.
Predictably North has been on a seesaw of reviews — from brilliant to "pompous. Pretentious, soporific." The lyrics are clearly personal. "It doesn't matter if people become morbidly curious that it's autobiographical. If you write something direct and open, you're inviting listeners to say, 'Is that you?' I say, ‘No. I see you in it.'" Songwriters become identified with their words. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell opened the way for a lot of boring lyricists to burden us with their less interesting lives. "People ask why I go in different directions. Why not? As far as I know we only get one life, and when opportunities come your way, the only reason not to do them is if you're defending a brand, which is a wretched way to think about music.
"But it's not for me to judge singers who are more pragmatic — or cynical, depending on how generous you're feeling. The record industry has given me a lot of money not to play the game. It's been a huge con all these years, wasting vast amounts of their money," he jokes, but adds more seriously, "I've spent my time making records I like, and some they didn't like at all.
"Rock 'n' roll has become oddly conservative, although I've had a problem about how financially crooked the whole game is. A lot of it is falling apart through its own greed and stupidity."
Some of his lyrics are hectoring, expressing deeply felt views, but he says, “I haven't written any political songs. I've written as an emotional response to events, so they're called political because they're not about love.
“You cant have it both ways — serious intent and popularity. It doesn't all have to be insubstantial. There's a small rearguard action from smart people who understand that art needn't be forbidding, and realise some listeners want to spend time with a record that isn't completely disposable." For the past 13 years Costello has lived mostly in Dublin, “But I don't consider myself based anywhere. When I'm in England I find the obsession with a handful of invented celebrities is weird, amid dreamy. But it will pass, like everything else."
Time, perhaps, to have a go at him. Last year he and his band, the Attractions, were inducted into the Rock ‘n' Roll Hall of Fame (which honours legendary performers), an honour he dismissed as "crap" a few years earlier. “So many friends were really excited," he explains now. “I've been churlish about accolades, so I thought, ‘It's only a party. Go and see for yourself' My first instinct was right. It's ghastly. Those running it, who are on the business side of music, spoke so much self—important hot air I nearly walked out. I thought, ‘Please don't tell me these people think I'm good.' Awards are a joke, but I'm not sure who on. Nobel invented dynamite and now has a peace prize. Is he trying to get in good with God?" And as for being called a rock ‘n' roll legend; now he's in his 50th year, he becomes almost apoplectic. “I don't see myself like that. I'd never use ‘rock' in a description of myself, or ‘legend' — a word promoters use to sell a few tickets for someone who's not so good as he thinks he is."
Alter his initial success Costello joined another hall of fame — the pop excess brigade. “I went slightly off the rails, and didn't make a big success of my personal life. I had a fair go at the rock 'n' roll lifestyle — it suits the younger man. Some of it was fun, and some caused a lot of pain. Bad behaviour is not necessary for pop Success. Some of my first lyrics were written by a relatively puritanical young man who thought, ‘I'll try this temptation.' You go mad for a couple of years, and then deal with the guilty side and try to regain tenderness, trust, and a belief in something other than waking with a headache. You start to look outwards and use some of the skills you've almost accidentally accrued."
He said he was motivated by revenge and anger. "There's an element of truth, as well as exaggeration. It's obvious to anyone who listened that there were many more emotions being expressed, but that first image is potent. It made better copy, and I can't be blamed for that. It was journalists and advertising men collaborating in myth making.
"Attitudes you pretend to have at 23 stay with you. When you're starting you like to come in hot and determined, flatten everything around you while you learn who you are and what you're going to do. Then it goes wrong, and from that you accumulate knowledge, not necessarily wisdom. I never attached myself to any gang or movement. Obviously I'm not an opera singer. I'm in pop, but that's a dirty word now, meaning contrived and manufactured music. Everyone is just trying to do their job — that's what I say."
In 1979 — when he was drunk and trying to goad rock star Stephen Stills during a bar-room brawl — he described singer Ray Charles as an "ignorant blind nigger." The comment — for which Costello later apologised — could have ruined his career. "Is this a skeleton I hear? I spend a lot of time explaining the effect even 25 years later, It's complex. I'd like you to read an essay I wrote about Get Happy!!, the album that came out after that event ["it was the product of crazed indulgence, the exact opposite of my true beliefs"]. In the larger scale of transgressions there are much more wicked things we can all say we did. I did worse, hut I'm not telling you what."
I wonder if he was a bit up himself “What a charming expression," he mutters. “I think everyone is. But the most idiotic criticism of anyone creative is that it's self-indulgent. What in the world is creativity supposed to be? It can be useless and boring, but to criticise it for being self-indulgent is missing the point entirely."
What next? “I don't have ambitions as such. Never had. I didn't go for fame. I'd rather the songs were better known than me. It worked out that I'm a little hit known in a lot of places, rather than so uncontrollably known my life is bent out of shape. I have friends like that, and I'm not sure that even all their rewards are worth it. I'm big and ugly, so people don't confront me."