Sounds, March 1, 1986

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The Costello show and tell

Richard Cook

The self-proclaimed King of America talks to Richard Cook about his new LP, his uncomfortable relationship with the music press, and the mediocrity of today's pop music.

I hadn't realised what a strange cluster of accents there is in Elvis Costello's voice.

Sentences end with the soft fluted lilt of Ireland. A Liverpudlian rhythm breaks up his words. Most of the delivery is loud, assertive southerner, sometimes nearly a bark. An occasional Atlanticism peeks through.

I've not heard a voice so curious since I heard Grace Jones speak.

"Erm… you have different reasons for liking things I suppose. 'I'll Wear It Proudly' is my favourite song on the record and maybe 'American Without Tears.' But I like things that are on there just for the feeling — like 'Eisenhower Blues' and some of the fast things. I like little bits of musical things, details. But there's a lot of songs. I sort of forget them."

King Of America is not a record that makes you want to forget.

Almost an hour long, chiselled and grappled into a sparse, hurtful, glittery sequence, the LP isn't a difficult set to digest; but it's absolutely clear about offering no crumbs of concession. It's Costello standing up for his songwriter's art, insisting on all the virtues in an intellectual twist of the heart.

Almost two years after the hasty and embattled Goodbye Cruel World, Costello's return to such complete strength is almost alarming. The songs on King Of America recorded in comparatively primitive conditions in Los Angeles but performed with an astounding sense of personality, are a thinker's archive of rare words, flashbulb pictures long sweet melodies… the accustomed Costello show, but sewn together with a new, finer touch.

His ear and eye have never needled away as sharply.

Was this collection — so long in arriving — written and polished over a long period?

"No, I thought about it over a long period. I didn't stop writing…"

Contrary to popular rumour.

"Yeah, absolutely contrary. The first song I wrote was "Indoor Fireworks" at the beginning of last year, and the last was 'Suit Of Lights' which I did just before the last period of recording. We did three bouts of recording spread over three months. I didn't want to be in California for any length of time, so we did it two weeks at a time.

"I went to California to produce the Coward Brothers record, about last February and I had about four of the songs on the album then. In the interim I wrote a lot more."

Can't stop writing songs, eh?

"I can do if I want to. Artificially. I didn't let myself write any songs before Goodbye Cruel World and then I did them really quickly, which I don't think was a very good idea. Maybe I should have worked on them longer.

"It's something that goes on. Like, can you stop thinking?"

Yes, but I have to think about doing it first.

Costello is in an electrical mood. At the back of his conversations one can make out the hackles of a man still wound up by press and media; don't let me be misunderstood suckers. His energy in conversation is quilted with habitual distrust. You talkin' to me?

My usual deadpan bewilderment in these situations amuses him. His spectacles are opal tinted. The eyes aren't on show. But his madly tousled hair and snaggle of teeth give him a slightly lunatic smile.

King Of America is, as Costello insists, a record outside its bare acoustic wires and trickle of amplification makes it remote from any radio sound of today. One of the few recent precedents for this music comes from the work of his co-producer, T-Bone Burnett.

"He saw the songs as they were coming up. He said 'Well, why don't you just make it clearer? Why don't you call these people?' Instead of doing it half solo and half with The Attractions, which was one idea. Part of his job was to stop me messing about with the songs.

"There should be due credit to Larry Hirsch the engineer. A lot of records with acoustic bass are quite small and this is quite large without a lot of silly effects. He recorded it so that the personality of the actual player is identifiable which is pretty uncommon now."

Like a jazz production.

"Yeah, there was a track on that Miles Davis record Man With The Horn where they went into raptures about a fantastic innovation on the drums — and it was just a lot of really horrible echo they've put on them. But it was an innovation for a jazz record."

Was the chime of this LP any reaction to an over-production on the last few Costello records?

"The last record was just a mess — it started off to be one record and changed halfway through. The one before, I probably don't like as much as I did when we made it. But it might be over-produced in your opinion or maybe in mine, and the people who like it like it because it sounds like that. That's why they bought it. I'm not going to disown it.

"The songs are the most important thing, and then the singing on them. Everything that contributed to that was a good idea and everything that got in the way of it was a bad idea. It's bloody simple. What's hard about that?"

Bang! Bang! And as we proceed, the paid murmur of doubt and the impervious artist, it grows clear how Declan MacManus and Elvis Costello have made peace with each other: instead of killing Elvis, Declan has scrubbed out his ambiguities. The songs have it; it’s that simple. You hear it; or you don’t. I think: therefore…

This ‘King’ might have been a solo record?

"I considered it, but you have to understand the folk-singer prejudice that exists. People expect it to sound like something else. It’s very hard to make a record with very few instruments on it these days. People associate it with another time, and they don’t really listen to the record at all. The minute certain people hear any kind of country inflection on the record, they won’t listen to the song at all. It’s as if it’s a mortal sin.

"Like 'Our Little Angel' — the chorus sounds like it might have come out of a country song, but the verse doesn’t. They’re my songs. I borrowed some mannerisms from some traditional styles of music, but they’re my songs. Nobody else could have written them.”

Costello speaks a truth that might be harsh for himself. Out of the simple materials of verse and chorus and language, he’s carved this closed-off brilliance. For all its clarity and mastery of the form, ‘King Of America’ doesn’t seem like something you make friends with. Only when he has fun, in the record’s two covers, does the fist unclench.

"I think 'Eisenhower Blues' is hilarious. My records often have little traps for critics to step into, and that’s one — I was waiting for someone to go, Here we go, the English blues revival, or something. That’s one of the joys of this not entirely comfortable relationship I have with the music press. Interviewers and reviewers want their prejudices confirmed. They’ve framed questions in such a way that it’s impossible to answer without subscribing to their prejudice.”

He grins his messy smile and perches his head on one side.

"One writer got his knickers in a twist about ‘Misunderstood’ — did it stop the world? He was gullible enough to believe a lot of unfounded rumours about me. It’s not the best track, but it’s one that introduces people to the sound of the record, and when you compare it to the rest of what’s on the radio, it’s like a punk record. What better way to do that then use a familiar song that I have some sympathy with? I don’t want to be misunderstood. I mean, don’t you lie awake and worry about the little sinful things you’ve done? I do! But it’s not a life and death struggle for my soul. It’s only a record.

"Eisenhower Blues” is just fun, especially this year. I could have written a very heavy song about the retrogressive moral and political aspects of America, but I’d rather get drunk and sing ‘Eisenhower Blues’ just for a laff. And it swings. I’d dance to it in my personal disco.”

When songs are so literate — so full of words — we inevitably read a lot into and out of them.

It’s an absorbing game, going through Costello’s records: with every character either naked or armed to the teeth with morals and worse, every phrase loaded, it’s sublime guesswork as to whether ‘he’ is in there. Except, every so often, it’s as though Costello pauses in his dismantling of civilisation and something personal comes out.

On the phantasmic Imperial Bedroom, it happened when you got to "Almost Blue." In King Of America, it happens — perhaps — when you reach "I'll Wear It Proudly."

"Well, to some extent. It’s not so much as I’m standing aside in the other songs and then it’s personal — that could just be the most personal moment. It’s up to you how you react to the way I write. ‘I’ll Wear It Proudly’ is the most open, unqualified love song I’ve ever written. What’s the big surprise about that being the most personal thing? You’re not seeing mirages. But to someone else, it might be a different moment. Otherwise it might as well be a 12-incher with one song on it.”

Perhaps it’s rather easy for this Elvis to be angry, passionate, bursting with well-chosen venom.

"Is it? You tell me. Could you have written this album?”

No, I don’t write songs.

"I turn it on and off, but I don’t want to waste my anger on things that are unworthy. I’d end up like those people who walk round with carrier bags on their heads yelling at traffic. What’s the point of that?”

No point. But we’re impaled again on our image of Elvis Costello, fashioned as far back as "Miracle Man" and "Less Than Zero." So when a change — or at least a refocusing, a quick sharpening — is manifested in King Of America, what do we do?

"It’s just there. The songs are what they appear to be.”

And maybe we’re obliged to interpret them just so. The slowness, the laziness of rock writing and plain rock interpretation is crystallised in Costello: he’s always "savage,” always "bitter,” always "railing” against something. Or so most of the KOA reviews would have it. No wonder we get hung up on the "death of Elvis.” But Declan can’t be bothered to care.

"This is the critical conceit. Most people make up their own minds — they don’t give a damn about what you like. Nobody cares that much about the critical perspective. It’s just information. Your feelings are important to you, but — it’s just records, just music.

Ah, I supposed this isn’t what we want to hear from a man who pushes words and music around with such angry care and attention.

"You’re saying that that critical perception of what I do is limited to a few things. Well, that’s the critic’s fault. I consciously left the negative emotions off this record — which isn’t to say I don’t have them. I have a reputation for writing those sort of songs, something really spiteful. I have written quite a lot like that, and in the context of this album it would have drawn attention away from ‘I’ll Wear It Proudly’, which is a kind of song I’ve never written before.

"I might make two and a half more records this year,” he says calmly. "Two albums and one little album. I’ve got 75 per cent of the material. I’ve got an entire album’s worth of material I’m going to record next month, and another half an album I could do in the autumn, plus another small thing I’ll be contributing to. So I don’t know when I’ll play live again. I certainly won’t play for three-and-a-half-hours any more. I’ll probably play for 20 or 30 minutes and do like I did when I started, just play the eight songs that seemed like the most important matter of life and death that night.

"I think live shows and records should be more of an event. This record is an event — I don’t give a damn if it sells millions, but I’d like it to. I can’t afford to make at least one of the records I want to make until I sell millions of records. It would be too expensive. This one was expensive.”

How much money does he make?

"I’ve no idea.”

That what I say, too. The rich man’s answer.

"I’m not rich. I’m not poor, either.”

I reflect on Costello’s voice — on King Of America it moves through deep soul sweep, a pinched organ-grinder grimace, a countrified howl. How considered is his singing?

"It’s death to think about it, about feeling. If you’re attempting to put over a song, there’s a certain amount of notes I can reach, and straining up to them will be effective for that song. If you start examining each line that way, you’d never be able to sing at all. It think the singing on this record’s pretty good. The songs are performed. I know how to sing them. I don’t hide behind mannerisms. "

Does he sing like a storyteller?

"There’s more stories on this album. 'Brilliant Mistake' is three little stories. 'American Without Tears' is a long story with a personal comment at the end. You just have to listen to it. Either it appeals to you or it doesn’t.

Bang bang, again. And words have been banged out in Costello’s huge library. He never seems to sacrifice words for music: one of his funniest, most uproarious songs, "The World And His Wife,” is almost impossible to sing.

"I’ve never had the perfect balance. But I don’t think there are too many words. There are as many words and notes as there are supposed to be.” I think I read that, somewhere.

It’s irresistible to ask Costello about the state of pop’s nation. He had been the wittiest of fifth columnists. Today, he shrugs off the epithets.

"I don’t listen to the radio. I switch it on in the morning, but if they’re talking or playing a record I don’t like, I switch it off again. I don’t sit there waiting like Nipper for the next song I’ll enjoy. I own quite a lot of records and I can go and put one on.

"I hardly buy a lot of records now because they’re mostly complete nonsense. How many would you have bought if you didn’t get them as review copies? There were only a couple last year, and I produced one of them. Rain Dogs is the other. Psycho Candy is a worthy thing, but I’d rather steal it than buy it. You can hear Madonna records on the radio all the time — you don’t need to buy them. Saves you the money.

"I fell out of love with the pop neurosis of adjusting your critical faculty to the next point down on the scale as the records got worse and worse. The danger is that you sound like an old fellow who doesn’t understand today’s music, but I have to say that most of today’s records which I have the misfortune to hear are totally lacking in any imagination, fervour, verve, any quality of playing or singing or composition … there are no gifted primitives, even.” Isn’t the indie ethic undergoing a revival?

"No idea. Tell me a record that’s any good.”

Shop Assistants’ "Somewhere In China”?

"Haven’t heard it. Too many records come out, that’s the thing. This mania they’ve got for banning records in America, all the satanic heavy metal records. The reason for not banning them isn’t that they don’t corrupt — they’re so f****** terrible that you don’t need to buy them! That goes for a lot of what’s released. It’s consumerism gone mad.”

Are young people cheated by today’s pop?

"If they are, they can do something about it. They can stop buying it and put all these people out of business. It’s like The Sun. Or the radio. If people sit round going, Oh, don’t like the records on the radio, why don’t they try and make better records?”

A history lesson is bound up in the answer to that. Where has it led? Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

"I think they committed the unforgivable sin of being rude to Muriel Grey on TV last week. They’re forever damned.

"Actually, I think they’re funny. It’s like Tony James saying "(assumes thick-ear drawl), "we thought we’d get some designer violence, mix it up with some BMX bikes and computer games, models with big tits, fast cars… it’s funny. As long as you don’t have to listen to the record.

"It’s art school theory. The idea that the Sex Pistols should never have made a record, that the idea was better than the reality — it’s the same thing here. The humorous thing isn’t the group involved, it’s this daft record company EMI — how can they fall for it twice in ten years? In Julien Temple’s version of the Sigue Sigue Sputnik story they’ll cut to a shot of a Partick Cargill figure in a bowler hat, the bastion of the EMI establishment, but in reality it’s just a bewildered A&R guy who’s afraid that if he doesn’t sign them someone else will. It’s just show business. It’s been going on a while.”

I crease my face back into its usual question mark. So, do we have to get back to good songs and good playing?

"No,” says Costello, beginning to sound like DeGaulle. "I’m not going to. Have you heard me play? I wouldn’t get a job in someone else’s group in a million years. It’s not a question of getting back, it’s going on. Either we have to pack up and go home or more people will have to find something within themselves that’s worth it. I just get bored.

"I get asked for songs for other people, but I always send really weird ones to see if they’ll do them. Last year I got asked for songs for Olivia Newton-John and Sarah Vaughn. And I had some songs in the original Absolute Beginners, but it’s so out of control that it’s hard to know what’s in it. I disagreed with the director over whether I had telepathic abilities or not.”

Are good songs being made but not recorded right?

"No idea. They might be there, but they’ve yet to reach my ears.

"U2 and Simple Minds make pieces of music, but they’re not songs. I’m not looking down my nose at them — it’s just a trend. The modern trend is to make bits of music.”

He upturns his palms. What can I do?

Elvis Costello still writes songs — he can’t stop it. What do I think? What do you think? It’s just words, just records.

"Maybe I’m from a different age, or something.”

<< >>

Sounds, March 1, 1986

Richard Cook interviews Elvis Costello.


1986-03-01 Sounds page 22.jpg1986-03-01 Sounds page 23.jpg
Pages 22-23.

1986-03-01 Sounds cover.jpg

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1986-03-01 Sounds photo 01 pa .jpg
Photo by Peter Anderson.


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