That Elvis Costello today simultaneously releases two separate albums is, on the surface, rare but not unprecedented. After all, Guns 'n' Roses, in the '80s, and Bruce Springsteen, in the early '90s, did that and this month hip-hop star Nelly has followed suit.
But Costello's double comprises a rock 'n' roll album with his regular band, the Imposters, and a full-length orchestral piece with his newest "band," the London Symphony Orchestra. Don't run away screaming in horror. We're not talking one of those crass, marketing-driven "cross-over" records admired for chutzpah rather than musical satisfaction.
One album, called The Delivery Man, is defiantly raw and draws from rhythm 'n' blues and country, the original wellsprings of Costello's career when it began in pointy shoes and a sneer in 1977. It features the voices of Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, has a lyrical through-line of a three-way love affair in the Deep South of the US and not an oboe, timpani or triangle in sight. (It is this album Costello will be touring in Australia November with the Imposters.)
The other, called Il Sogno, a recording of what began as a commissioned score for an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Italy's Aterballetto dance company, draws from Debussy, European folk songs and mid-20th century jazz and popular music. It features a cimbalin (a dulcimer-like folk instrument) and drummer alongside the orchestra, but not an amped guitar in sight.
To these untutored ears there are passages in Il Sogno which evoke some of the vivacity and awareness of the landscape of Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. A relaxed Costello, not a man given to tolerance of idle comparisons by reviewers and interviewers, does not snap back when I put this to him. In typical Costello fashion however, he still answers at length.
"I can't say that I thought in terms of those composers but I'll accept that interpretation as a compliment," he says from his New York home. "What I've said already when people ask me how I feel about the comparisons being made, I think, well you know they're mentioning composers of quality. They're not mentioning some muzak composer. It isn't that I must immediately claim that I'm operating at that level but at least the comparisons are with composers who approached the task of writing their pieces seriously.
"This [ballet and its music] is a comedy and we can't lose sight of that, and some of the musical gestures are intended ironically and that should be transparent on hearing. But at the same time I did this thing with a lot of care and even the release of this record alongside a record of songs, which is the thing I'm better known for doing, is a way of saying that I value these things equally even though I acknowledge they're completely different in nature."
Newly married for the third time, to jazz singer Diana Krall, slimmer it appears in most photos and demonstrably buoyant — he told an English newspaper "I'm definitely, unashamedly happy" — the just turned 50-year-old Costello is less combative than normal. Certainly by comparison with a year ago when he released North, an album of intimate songs which were as influenced by 18th-century lieder as the great American songbook and whose lyrical direction (a love ends and a new one arrives to giddying effect) afforded questioners a little too much connection to Costello's personal life for his comfort.
He is prepared for the inevitable objections from purists on both sides of the pop/classical divide over this new work, though it should be noted the performances of Il Sogno, most recently in New York, have received complimentary reviews. Not to mention that since writing and performing with the string ensemble the Brodsky Quartet 12 years ago he has written chamber and small orchestra pieces for the likes of the Academy of St Martin In the Fields, the Swedish Radio Symphony and the Charles Mingus Orchestra.
"I don't think it requires you to have any special knowledge of any form of music to appreciate this, provided you don't erect barriers to your own enjoyment by saying 'that isn't for me'," Costello says of his two works. "That's a decision that some people make culturally. Well, that's a fairly childish response to an art form but I know there are people who do that."
Maybe the problem, if it is a problem, is that this is a composer with more than one compositional reference point: pop, rock, jazz and several hundred years of classical composition.
"I suppose you've hit the nail on the head because when I write for rock 'n' roll bands I am making reference to 50 years or so of popular music references. You might draw one time from the Beach Boys and the next time from Howlin' Wolf.
"I'm doing the same thing with Il Sogno but I'm doing it, as you say, over a much larger time scale. Music wasn't invented in 1954, even though that was the year I was born."