Over the past three decades, Elvis Costello has skipped effortlessly from low-brow to high-brow without fogging up his trademark black-rimmed spectacles.
Ever since releasing "My Aim Is True," his critically acclaimed debut in 1977, the former New Wave icon has shape-shifted from acerbic rocker to fashionable collaborator, making music with an unlikely group of people along the way, including Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.
Most recently he has written the score for an Italian dance company's adaptation of Shakespeare's "A
Midsummer Night's Dream," which features Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. He also recently completed work with John Malkovich on a television script about a female rock band.
When writing the script became too irksome, Costello turned it into the tetchy song "Tear off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" the first single from his latest album, "When I Was Cruel." But he didn't stop there.
"I even wrote `Spooky Girlfriend' with Destiny's Child in mind. Don't you think they'd sound good singing that?" Costello asks, speaking on the phone from a tour stop in Providence, R.I.
"I've never seen any of the things that I've done in the last years as a side issue or a detour," he says.
"I've always been completely committed, and people perceive the rock 'n' roll records as the only authentic voice of the music that I write. I can't subscribe to limiting yourself to one form of expression exclusively. If you didn't really feel it, it would be insulting to the audience to limit it to just what you think they can understand. That's patronizing, and I could never do that."
Having said that, the author of such contemporary classics as "Pump It Up" and the winsome "Alison"
is not coming to Berkeley's Greek Theatre to expand our minds. He's here to rock, despite the fact that his next album, "North," due out in September, contains 11 intimate ballads and has less than 12 bars of electric guitar on the entire record.
"These last group of songs I wrote predominantly either backstage during the last tour. I just had the music coming into my head all the time and I'd have to turn it off long enough to do the show, and then maybe start working on it again the minute I came offstage. I bought a little electric keyboard that could be turned down to really quiet volume so I could play at night in the hotel rooms without disturbing other guests. And as a consequence the music developed a very intimate voice -- I tended to find the music in keys that suited that late night. . . .
"I sing most of this record in the lowest register of my voice -- I haven't exploited that much on a record.
So it's good after 25 years to actually make a record where it's recognizably me but it's also recognizably
different than any other record that I've made."
It's also much more blandly titled than any of his previous efforts. But Costello gets a little touchy
when quizzed about "North," insisting that the album takes its title from "a point on a compass."
"I think that people like to put way too much store in names. It's like you eat the corn flakes, you don't
eat the packet. I've never understood why people put so much store by what's on the cover. You want it to
draw people's attention, you want the title to intrigue people, and then it's the content. Well, it is obviously a direction, literally, in which I've spent a lot of my life moving. And in this case it just meant what I said."
The Diana Krall factor
But the cognoscenti insist that "North" is a reference to Nanaimo, in British Columbia, the hometown of Diana Krall, Costello's constant companion for the past several months. The two began seeing each after Costello filed for divorce from his wife of 16 years, former Pogues member Cait O'Riordan, in September 2002. But no one knew how serious the romance was until Krall's father, Jim, an accountant in Nanaimo, inadvertently leaked their engagement to the Victoria Times on May 2. Although he didn't provide any details or when the nuptials will take place, he did give the union his blessing.
Costello attended Krall's show at Yoshi's in Oakland on May 31, sharing a table with longtime pal Tom Waits. But Krall will be en route to a jazz festival in Naples when Elvis steps onstage at Berkeley's Greek Theatre.
"Just because I'm releasing `North' is not to say that I've lost any love for rock 'n' roll," Costello
continues. "I mean, that's really what we're on: a rock 'n' roll tour. And the great thing about it is we
don't have any inhibition about where we draw the songs from.
"I don't like to live exclusively in the distant past, but this tour has us playing more songs from the last 10 years than, say, last year. We tended to initially start with a blueprint of `When I Was Cruel,' `Blood and Chocolate' and `This Year's Model' -- apparently being the three records that fitted together the best -- and as the year went on we added a lot into it and ended up with an 80-song record tour by the end of it."
The Imposters includes keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas (of Costello's longtime band the Attractions) and newcomer bassist Davey Faragher. The last took over for Bruce Thomas, who wrote "Big
Wheel," a tell-all book in 1990 about being on the road with Costello, which many said caused Thomas' dismissal. ("It really had nothing to do with the book," Costello told Blender magazine in 2002. "He's bad-tempered and miserable and doesn't concentrate.")
Costello says he and the Imposters are performing because they have fun doing it.
"There isn't any commercial agenda other than to see as many people in the hall as we can. We don't have a
record that's currently out. We're not making a special case for `When I Was Cruel,' although some of those songs obviously feature in the show. This is a huge luxury of having a large catalog. We're pulling songs from all over the place, and we can change the set radically from night to night. We'll just have to
see how the mood strikes us when we reach Berkeley."
Dressing for work
But the mood seems upbeat today. "I usually like to wear a gorilla suit or the pink rabbit suit onstage.
But unfortunately they haven't come back from the dry cleaners in time for the tour," says Costello, until
he's reminded that he is not a member of the Flaming Lips. "I've always tended to just wear a suit, or a
suit jacket. It's just a personal feeling that I feel like I'm getting dressed to go to work now. I don't
feel the need to wear a rhinestone suit, and not sure I would really look that good in it, so I've pretty
much always dressed like a variation of that, my whole career."
"I had a period last year when I dressed more casually for a while, over the last couple of years, but I've sort of shifted back toward suits and ties some of the time and a more casual jacket some other times. But occasionally it gets uncomfortable to dress like that because it's so hot onstage. But I still
feel right; I feel there's a certain rightness to just dressing that way. For me. It's a personal thing."