Baby boomers will remember their youth as a time when what drove ambitious pop artists was not escapism and empty-headedness, but the need to complain about the state of things. It was a time when an Elvis Costello interview would leave a tape recorder practically corroded by a cassette full of vitriol.
These days his intensity is disciplined by an understated, almost self-effacing public personality. The blunt truth, for instance, that pop lyric writers are a "race of pygmies" has often tripped off his tongue. But these days he's not so keen to complete the equation — that in comparison he is a colossus bestriding the whole ridiculous lot of them. That he can leave the rest of us to say.
Costello has been away since his two 1986 albums, but he's back with a clever head, a fast mouth and a new alter ego in "The Beloved Entertainer" and his schizo-greasepaint grin. And a brilliant LP in Spike, a showcase of musical styles which employs, among others, the guitars of Roger McGuinn and Paul McCartney, the piano of Allen Toussaint, the New Orleans jazz of The Dirty Dozen Band and the cream of Ireland's modern folk musicians. It's been hailed as his most brilliant LP since … well, the last one.
Through that distinctive gap in the front teeth, and in his transatlantic Scouse accent, a stream of intelligent thoughts show that he's taking nothing for granted. He's keen to talk — not that it was always this way.
"For a long time I was quite defensive about speaking to people," he says sitting in the Dublin hotel room where most of Spike was written (he and wife ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan have just bought a house in the Irish capital). "Then it gets to a point where that doesn't serve your purposes anymore, and you have to find a new way. The absence of communication from yourself becomes a void, and people stop looking into it with interest and go look somewhere else."
Have they looked away because pop's molecules have become radically rearranged, and he doesn't fit into today's chart scene? "It's just what I do, either it appeals to you or it doesn't," he says, in the spirit of the new modesty. "But it doesn't really exclude it from being a pop record, because a pop record is by definition a record that's popular. And I've had a few of those, and then I've had other records that I think are better records, that have meant a lot more to people, but there's been less of them, there hasn't been enough of it to register as a pop success. But it hasn't made it a creative failure because it lacked popular success."
These days, says Costello, he's not in a race with anybody. Apart from his contemporaries who have retired, everyone else who surfed ashore with their skinny ties and straight jeans on 1977's New Wave have long since disappeared up their own bank accounts. So where does his inspiration stem from? "Oh, I don't know, it's not the sort of thing you even want to question. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'm not even gonna tempt fate by assuming that it's even inspiration. Sometimes it's just hard work. I do work hard, because I enjoy it and it doesn't bother me. It hasn't got stale, 'cos I've changed it every time I started to get tired of it."
One place the "veteran" popped up between 1986 and Spike was the Roy Orbison and Friends TV special, which could have been a tacky tribute but turned out to be a classy homage, with the man himself surrounded by legendary US pop names … and Costello. He contributed rhythm guitar, organ and "a bit of bad harmonica," and says "the idea was to keep it very sparse on the backslapping — you know, we all love each other, even though we only met five minutes ago backstage."
"It was just really hip," he says, "They shot in a moody kind of way, on high quality film, they kept the lighting appropriate, they kept the dark room, it seems like you've always seen him in black and white. And the ballads at least are pretty serious pieces of music. His ballads, they're like little opera pieces, you wanna play them really seriously, and they're fuckin' difficult to play as well — we were all reading charts!"
"I was really glad that we did that show, and there's something that was really contemporary, so that people can say he wasn't just good in the Sixties, he was still really good. And he was a very nice man. And I hadn't really wanted to say anymore, 'cos I got this bloody radio station and that bloody radio station calling me up after he died. You just get the feeling that they just want to elongate the story, it's not really a sincere tribute, and they just grab anybody who may be appropriate, some talking head or Paul Gambaccini or some wanker like that, and do some platitudinous little tribute. You just go back to his records and it's all there."
Speculating on events and emotions that may have drawn from Costello's own life was one thing which always made his records so queasily compelling. But Spike seems to have much less personal content. He has a real downer on the way people chase after the details of others' personal lives. The listener picking apart his songs for titbits is, for him, on a par with tabloid voyeurism. "It's a morbid thing," he reckons, "that replaces a real emotion in your own life. And it's like you read today Sean and Madonna breaking up — what, again? There comes a point when people just lose interest."
This fascination with "honest, very personal" songs started, Costello says, with the singer-songwriter boom of the mid-Seventies. Fleetwood Mac have a lot to answer for. "They have made a career out of it without ever having to speak their mind on it. They've allowed it to be assumed that this was all about them, and in America that was the beginning of the Me Generation, they were the soundtrack for that. That's what made people say, "Who are these people that can bare their souls?". Well, what are they baring exactly, what are they saying? And there was a whole self-conscious era of self-publicity and self-flagellation, and I don't think I've ever done that. The song does the talking."
News that Costello has co-written nine songs on the new Paul McCartney LP and two on Spike raised eyebrows. Macca is hardly at the cutting edge, is he? "I think people want him to be something he can never be," replies Costello.
"What he is in my mind is a very, very good musician, and he knows an awful lot about songwriting. It wasn't like we were sitting round in a rosy glow dreaming up these songs, it was good fun, it was bantering and taking the piss out of each other when we got to know each other better. And just trying out ideas. And I'd never written with anybody in the room before, so it was just as new to me. He'd had ten years of it, with somebody pretty good, as well."
Costello's career continues to inspire in a period when the phrase "pop artist" seems a contradiction in terms. Creative genius? He'll put it all down to hard work. "No matter how cynical anybody ever might get about me, not working hard is something I can never be accused of. I enjoy it and it doesn't bother me — it's not like showing off.
"You've only got to watch any nostalgia programme to see how many careers are founded on one hit, one half idea. I could have honed any one bunch of songs into a formula which I could have kept repeating, probably made a more steady, lucrative career. But I would have gone out of my mind by now."