Words are loaded like crime scenes in Elvis Costello's world. Consider the title of his weighty 2015 memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink: pretty cluey for a songwriter obsessed with romantic deception whose characters vanish into figments of imagination at the fade-out.
"It isn't 'me' singing, as you probably guessed, in quite a few of the songs," he says of the 12 mysteries that comprise his new album, Look Now. "I was trying to write by thinking about how it felt to be in a number of different predicaments and then [singing] from that point of view."
There's no reason to doubt his story. Famously married to jazz artist Diana Krall and father to their 11-year-old twins Frank and Dexter, what would he know about broken vows, lying photographs, suspicious tears and stains on the family name?
"That's one of the great freedoms of being a writer," he says. "I mean, a crime novelist kills a lot of people but they never go to jail, do they?"
Truth be told, the greatest living Elvis has done his time. The ache of three failed marriages – more about his parents later – seeps openly through his book. "It took me 10 years to finish writing about the misery I provoked," he reflects on his second, to Irish musician Cait O'Riordan.
Imperial Bedroom, the 1982 album often regarded as his greatest, traced the sordid, drunken collapse of his first marriage to his teen sweetheart Mary Burgoyne. "My misadventures and failings were handed to the characters in the songs for them to live out," he wrote.
In a musical if not confessional sense, Look Now is a stated successor to that 36-year-old masterpiece. It grew out of the Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers Tour, during which Costello and his band the Imposters – the Attractions' Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas plus bassist Davey Farragher – dusted off every one of its 15 tracks.
"Imperial Bedroom was made when the Attractions were moving from being just this rattling kind of live band that could make records very quickly to something that wasn't bound by other people's notions of rock 'n' roll," he says today. From baroque orchestration to 3am jazz, its colourful canvas served notice of the alleged "new wave" rocker's boundless adventures to come.
"It seemed to be a pretty good starting place for this band," he says. "When we did that tour last year we ended up playing the songs until they were almost new songs again, so I thought we might as well have new songs. I've been building up a lot of material over the last – well, it turned out to be 25 – years, but specifically across the last 10 years."
Only two of them are co-writes with Burt Bacharach, though the American master's famously complex structures and melancholy relationship scenarios have had a profound effect on Costello's work since they made their Painted From Memory album 20 years ago.
Look Now sounds frankly old-fashioned as a result – or timeless, depending on your musical perspective. Subject-wise, the singer certainly bristles at suggestions of topicality. British media assumptions that "the man who lost the British Empire" in I Let The Sun Go Down has anything to do with Brexit are "understandable", but wrong.
And if the showbiz roué seducing the young backstage intern in Under Lime reminds you of recent headlines, he'll remind you that such characters existed long before hashtags.
"I didn't have anybody in mind," he swears, adding that he's been in the business long enough to see "lots of lowlifes" in action. The fact that Lime Street is an infamous address in his hometown of Liverpool is probably neither here nor there. The stories about his mother, Lillian, working in a series of music sales jobs as a girl are possibly inadmissible too.
"None of the young women working at the shop," Costello writes in his book, "ever really wanted to find themselves in this confined space with one particularly famous conductor, who would use his guest appearances with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as a prelude to attempted seductions of the sales staff."
It was at one such job that Lillian met Ross MacManus, the big-band trumpet player and singer who would father young Declan, and loom so large in his musical education as he transformed into Elvis Costello. The fact that he left his wife and seven-year-old son after years of philandering is not glossed over in Costello's big book of true stories.
"Deep down within me pushed the knowledge that the temptations offered to my father for standing in the spotlight had pulled my parents apart," he writes. "I don't ever remember being really angry with my dad for leaving us, probably because my mam never spoke ill of him, mostly hiding any bitterness she felt until it wrecked her nerves."
The next line reads for all the world like a Bacharach/Costello chorus hook in waiting. "I don't think she ever stopped loving him."
Today, at home in Liverpool, as it happens, to care for his ailing mother, Costello reflects on his good fortune to have witnessed at such close range the career of the imperfect husband and father who he nursed through the painful decline of Parkinson's Disease seven years ago. "I probably had a slightly different slant on popular music because it was his business," he says. "It gave me different insight into what it took to learn a song, and that a song could have two or three lives. It could be sung by any number of people. That's probably why I wanted to be a songwriter before a singer, because it seemed to be a pretty good job, you know?"
The evidence, so far, would suggest so.
'Look Now is out now through Concord Records.