NEW YORK — Elvis Costello is feeling good today. From a suite in the Park Meridien Hotel, the man considered the best songwriter to emerge in the last 10 years has been talking to reporters almost non-stop for the last four days.
He has been explaining why he returned to his given name, Declan MacManus, and added the name Aloysius to boot. He has been dodging questions about his divorce, his new girlfriend — Cait O'Riordan of the Celtic rock group, the Pogues — and his private life in general.
He has been surprisingly self-critical regarding his last two albums, Punch The Clock, and Goodbye Cruel World, and genuinely enthusiastic about his new LP, King of America. As always, he is insightful, arrogant, tender and cynical, sometimes within a matter of minutes.
As he sits down to talk, swinging one leg over his chair, a large bottle of mineral water in one hand, he pulls his dark round sunglasses down his nose. His eyes gleam and his mouth rises into a sly grin.
It is clear that Costello is enjoying a peak time of his life. This isn't the kind of temporary high, like those of the past, that comes from the rush of success and public acclaim. This time he got there the hard way.
"I've made a lot of mistakes in my life during the past few years — both professionally and personally," he says straightforwardly. "But now I feel I've resolved both of them to the best of my ability."
Indeed. Costello has never seemed more centered as both a musician and a person. Over his nine-year career, the 31-year-old British native has sometimes seemed like a mass of contradictions.
From his first album, My Aim Is True, Costello's songwriting was intelligent and aware without lapsing into the confessional self-indulgence of '70s singer-songwriters like James Taylor. But in 1979, he acted like an arrogant, insensitive child — most pointedly when he blurted a racist swipe about Ray Charles in the heat of an argument with Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills.
Bramlett and Stills could goad almost anyone into making irrational statements. Still, the blunder was a symptom of a man out of control. Shortly afterward, when the remark became public, a contrite Costello apologized. Later, he confessed his sin in a Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus. But the situation confused the American public and Costello's popularity suffered.
He was also seen, at least initially, as a punk — aggressive in music, personal presence and perspective. But in 1981, he released the teary album of country cover songs, Almost Blue. With his 1982 Imperial Bedroom album, often called his masterpiece, Costello worked in a variety of musical idioms, including pre-rock pop.
Having established himself as a musician of long-lasting and varied talents who recorded what his heart told him, Costello did what seemed like another about-face and threw his hat into the commercial ring. On Punch The Clock, he came up with a soft confectionary sound and a song, "Everyday I Write The Book," that he hoped would reach the top of the singles' charts.
It didn't work. With his 10th album, Goodbye Cruel World, Costello hit bottom. Not even his staunchest critical supporters could find much nice to say. Costello now says he recorded that album with the idea that he was going to quit music.
During most of this time, Costello was married, with a son. He also was known, however, as a carouser, drinking and indulging too much.
Now his personal life and professional goals have settled down. His divorce has been painful but, as he says, "I've been lucky enough to find love a second time."
Moreover, he thinks that his current LP, King Of America, is one of his best albums ever. Rather than his usual backup band, the Attractions, Costello used, among others, jazz veterans Ray Brown and Earl Palmer and the former backup band for Elvis Presley — the TCB band of James Burton, Jerry Scheff and Ron Tutt. Most of the songs were played on stand-up bass, brush drums and acoustic guitar.
Nonetheless the production, guided by the deft hand of Texas musician T-Bone Burnett, is full and resonant, stripped-down and direct, but tender rather than austere. Vocally, Costello has never sounded surer or more honest. Musically, the album mixes styles from nightclub ballads to country-influenced romps to straightforward rock 'n' roll. Lyrically, it includes everything from a lighthearted cover like J.B. Lenoir's obscure "Eisenhower Blues" to heartfelt love songs to metaphors on America to a cover of the Animals' song from 1965, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."
Costello had a lot to say about the making of the album and how past events of his career and personal life influenced its outcome. This is Costello talking not from the emotional edge, or the pop stardom precipice, or from any place where he is trying to prove something.
Musical styles: "I'll use any kind of music that will get my point across. After all, none of the styles really belong to me. I'm just borrowing them. I have certain melodic ideas that fall within certain musical idioms. I'm a lyricist so I'll pick the musical style that best reflects the lyrical mood and the emotional content of the song."
Using T Bone Burnett as a producer: "It was decided that T Bone would produce this album after we toured together. T-Bone's main role in the production was stopping me from tinkering with songs. In the past, if a song wasn't working, I would have a tendency to change parts of it at the last minute. But instead of making them better, I made them worse. T-Bone reminded me that the song was all right. But that maybe I just needed to approach it with more sincerity."
Why he didn't use the Attractions: "T Bone knew the songs on King Of America very well before we went into the studio. When I was in Los Angeles, we would sit around with a group of his friends and I would play songs for them and they'd play songs for me. That's something British musicians don't do.
"T Bone and I got to talking about the feelings behind the songs early on in the process. With the Attractions, I had gotten to the point where I would wait until the record was almost over before I'd tell them what the songs were about. A lot of inhibitions had grown into my relationship with the Attractions over the emotional content of my songs. They had seen all I'd gone through over the last eight years and I guess it just made me uncomfortable.
"I guess, it's like the guy who will go into a bar and tell a group of strangers his problems, but he can't tell his best friend. So we felt it would be better to work with strangers this time around."
Picking musicians for King Of America: "We just thought, 'OK, who would be the ideal band for each song, and we were fortunate enough to get them. The songs had simple musical structures and lyrically, they're some of the least-guarded and least-mysterious songs I've written. A lot of these musicians had a very sweet musical style that suited the songs.
"I did use the Attractions on one song and actually working with other musicians made me appreciate the Attractions' strengths more than before. They have a very aggressive style and they were perfect for 'Suit of Lights' which is a song about the morbid pursuit of celebrity and how people like to see them fall."
His name change: "The Attractions were perfect for 'Suit of Lights' because, in part, that song was about the burial of the Elvis Costello legend. Or at least the limiting aspects of the Elvis Costello imagery.
"People think I'm just four or five emotions, a couple of vocal mannerisms and a punky beat. There's always been a lot more to what I've been about and what the band's been about. We've broken our backs trying to get that across. That's one reason I changed my name. Not that I'll ever lose the Elvis Costello part of it. It's too effective a gimmick to let it go entirely. But changing my name is a means of reasserting my individuality."
About America: "You know, I still like to irritate people, shake them up. Ah, call the album, King Of America, that'll raise a few hackles here and there. But people like to read political messages into songs that aren't really there. Really, only a couple of the songs are about America. 'American Without Tears' and 'Brilliant Mistake' (probably the album's two best songs).
"Actually I first thought of the phrase 'Brilliant Mistake' when someone asked me what I thought of Los Angeles. But really a 'Brilliant Mistake' can apply to America in general. No country has been built on such high-flown principles which it then uses to beat people over the head. America is a big baby that needs a lot of love. It constantly lets itself down. Never mind Sting singing about the Russians. I hope the Americans love their children, too. Sometimes it seems like they don't.
"But I wasn't trying to write political songs. Let's not kid ourselves. We've been through this before and I don't think the world has changed very much. All that political rock did was make RCA a lot of money and give us the Jefferson Starship. 'We Built This City On Rock 'n' Roll?' — Oh, very revolutionary."
Maturing: "I was always a mature musician, but not as a person. When I was just starting out, I was seen as mature beyond my years. Then, I went through a wild, immature period (1978-79), basically when I got license to do whatever I wanted. I became like a very wild teenager at 24. I was very badly behaved. But so are a lot of people. Only I suddenly had, at least at the time, a lot of money. I had drinks whenever I wanted them. I had drugs whenever I wanted them. I had women who didn't place any responsibility or requirement on me if I went to bed with them. It was not a happy period of time for people who trusted me. It's not a period I'm proud of. But I went through it and it's gone now.
"I found out that being mature as a musician doesn't make you bullet-proof from making a fool out of yourself."
Divorce and a new relationship: "People magazine did an article on me. And I asked why? I'm not an alcoholic and I don't have AIDS. So I'm getting a divorce. So what? So are a lot of people. A lot of musicians have to publicize their private lives because their music is so dull. I don't have to do that. But I don't like to talk about divorce because in part, it's hurtful. I also have to think about my 11-year-old son who's going to school.
"I'm now with a woman I love and hopefully, if we don't die in any plane crashes (he's afraid of flying), we'll get married."
What went wrong with Goodbye Cruel World: "Basically, I asked the wrong person to produce it, Clive Langer. But I wanted friends because I wanted someone I could trust. But actually, I entered the album with a cynical attitude. I really thought it was the last record I was going to make. Maybe I was throwing a private tantrum with myself and I thought if I said it enough someone would come and rescue me.
"Maybe I was fed up. Maybe I was on the road too long. I wasn't very happy with anything. This is where the line between personal and private blurs. The danger is it gets to be a sob story.
"But when you've loved someone an awful lot for a long time and you can't make it work anymore, it's a very unhappy thing. You have a sense of personal failure. Certainly, it was all my doing because of my irresponsibility. I feel lucky to come out of it alive and hopefully not causing too much pain."
The future: "Now I have a lot of songs of recording quality that haven't gotten onto vinyl yet. This year, I may yet record two more albums. One might be an album of orchestral pop. I don't want to record 'What's New?' Or a nostalgia record. I'm thinking of something that would cross Frank Sinatra and Gordon Jenkins with Phil Spector.
"But on the other hand, I'm getting ready to record an album of the fastest, most aggressive songs I've ever done. I'll record it with the Attractions. As for touring, if I do it, it will be in theaters for several days. You can't do slow jazz songs in an arena."
Why he covered "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood": I asked Costello: "'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood,' is really the same message as 'My Aim Is True.' Does that depress you?"
Costello quieted for a moment and then said, smiling, "Noooo, not at all. A lot of the people I most admire recorded the same song with the same sentiment over and over again. Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams, John Lee Hooker. Why should I be any different?
"I just want to be let to do my work. All I want is a fair chance. My aim is still true."