Elvis Costello is not the first pop artist to simultaneously release two new albums on the same day, a feat previously accomplished by performers as varied as Tom Waits, Guns N' Roses, jazz maverick Henry Threadgill, and – just last week – hip-hop star Nelly.
But Costello is the only one to simultaneously release a classically inspired orchestral album and a rootsy, country-meets-soul album, as he did Tuesday with, respectively, Il Sogno and The Delivery Man. And while others may draw lines between various musical idioms, this English-born maverick makes no such distinctions.
"I don't hear different styles as different things," Costello said recently from Manhattan, where he lives with jazz star Diana Krall, his new wife and musical collaborator.
"But it's almost like a religious thing to some people, on both sides," he conceded. "People on the classical side dismiss popular music, and pop people dismiss classical as something that's bourgeoise. It's all (just) fear."
As befits a proudly eclectic musician who has been fearless for much of his 27-year career, his impressive pair of new albums are as challenging as they are rewarding for listeners seeking aural adventure.
What these two very different works share in common is that they were each swiftly recorded in a matter of days by Costello, whose previous collaborators range from Burt Bacharach, George Jones and Paul McCartney to Brian Eno, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Chieftains.
What separates the two new albums, besides their obvious stylistic differences, is, well, just about everything.
The Delivery Man, recorded in a small studio in the Mississippi college town of Oxford, is a Lost Highway Records release. It draws from country, soul, blues, gospel and more. Costello salutes these styles, then subtly modifies them with unexpected melodic and rhythmic twists.
He is accompanied by his three-man band, The Imposters, who recorded with him live in the studio. They are joined on several of the selections by guest singers Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.
The even more audacious Il Sogno was commissioned in 2000 by Italy's Aterballeto dance company, which asked Costello to write the music for its production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Recorded at Abbey Road studios in London and released on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, the album features the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who Costello commends for being "tremendously generous and patient." Additional contributions are made by former Weather Report/Stan Kenton drummer Peter Erskine, saxophonist John Harle and contrabassist Chris Laurence.
Erskine, who provides a swinging jazz rhythm feel, reports that he and the orchestral musicians on Il Sogno were impressed by Costello's skill and daring.
"I have some pals in the London Symphony, and they're not the easiest crew to win over," Erskine said from his Santa Monica home. "But Elvis won them over right away. They got into the music immediately and were quite charmed by it, which is neat because I'm used to hearing them gripe. It's a lovely piece of music, and I was very impressed. This guy has an admirable work ethic and a refreshingly strong musical curiosity. He respects the tradition of orchestral classical music, and he's presenting a wonderful caldron of melodies that are very artfully created and strung together."
The hour-long Il Sogno finds Costello boldly flexing his compositional muscles, with nods to big-band swing, folk music, Broadway musicals and such famed classical composers as Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Claude Debussy. It is his first full orchestral foray, following previous collaborations with England's Brodsky string quartet and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter.
"Il Sogno was a commissioned work, so it had a definite deadline," Costello said. "It entailed not writing (music) for words, but writing to reflect action and trying to trace a narrative, and also to motivate dance movements and sequences. There were a lot of things that governed the writing of Il Sogno.
"With The Delivery Man, I wrote the story form about five years ago and a couple of songs which related to the characters, and it's taken me a while to find the right way to present them. I didn't know if I wanted to present it on stage, or as I've chosen to do (on record) in a more disorderly fashion. It all goes to prove that each piece of work you do will have very different influences upon how you carry it out and what forces it into existence."
At least half of The Delivery Man's 13 songs weave together the tales of three women in a small Southern town (the other songs are unrelated, although musically compatible). Each woman is drawn to the same man, Abel, who wants to atone for his murderous past and is wrestling with such timeless issues as love and death, sin and redemption.
The result, a sort of Gothic noir drama on record, deliberately avoids conventional storytelling structures – the better to challenge listeners and afford Costello greater expressive latitude.
"A lot of the songs are characters speaking, or me singing in a character's voice, and most of the songs have a relationship to The Delivery Man story," he explained. "The other songs are happening outside this rather claustrophobic drama, breaking through from TV and the outside world.
"I didn't want to make this a record where you could follow the narrative, although I want people to have a clear relationship with the individual songs and to hopefully understand something of the structure of the narration. But there is no pact that you have to explain things."
But what about the entirely instrumental Il Sogno, whose only narration is implied – not stated – in music, not words?
"People will respond to it in many different ways," Costello said. "Some people will want to see pictures and understand the transitions and narrative, and to recognize key characters in the story. Others will just listen to it and not look for those literal meanings. Their enjoyment is more abstract. I think it can work both ways."
A self-taught musician, he wrote the entire 200-page score out by hand.
"I composed it in 10 weeks, in 2000, in my head," Costello recalled. "I checked pitches on the piano, but I don't write on the piano because then you write piano music. I used a computer to transcribe the parts, which also allowed me to listen to them. But I didn't listen to any of the previous interpretations (of A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Mendelssohn or Britten, because I already knew some from memory. In fact, I deliberately avoided them."
Costello's goal with Il Sogno was to entice his listeners, not baffle them. He does this by employing familiar musical styles, which he then mixes together in fresh ways.
Witness his use of the cymbalom (a stringed-instrument played with mallets that famed Hungarian composer Béla Bartok also favored). And witness the animated "Oberon and Titania," on which Costello juxtaposes a sweeping, Ravel-like orchestration with the pulsating, 1-2 drum beat from the classic Coasters/George Benson song, "On Broadway."
"That's not a combination you hear very often, is it?" he asked, his voice a mix of pride and delight. "If I stumbled upon (a musical allusion to) West Side Story or Erik Satie, it was by accident. The 'On Broadway' thing was the exception, because that's the kind of beat I wanted.
"I made the decision to not strike out into completely uncharted territory – I'm not that presumptuous – or to try and write music that has no precedence at all," he continued. "I decided to go the other way and use the audience's shared knowledge of music history to make certain points. So I have fanfares and grand musical gestures that we associate with classical music. But I was writing an orchestral piece, not a classical piece, and I also use folk marches and swing."
Costello anticipates that some classical music purists will dismiss Il Sogno as the work of an interloper from the inferior world of pop music. But he is happy to be true to his artistic instincts, wherever they might take him.
"I've never written a note of music in mind of what critical response would be – or the audience's response," said Costello, who may tour the United States next year with the Imposters and already has plans for a small operatic work brewing.
"If I thought about those things, I'd never write anything. The only time I think of the audience is when the songs are recorded, and I think: 'How am I going to open the door for people to listen to this?' Then you start thinking about what surprises you can spring that will best invite them in, or best challenge them, and what the first song on the album should be.
"But the point is that it's not about how you see yourself. It's about how other people see you."