"When you get old it's like they go to the file for the opinions on you," said Elvis Costello last time he was on the interview treadmill. "It’s like, oh, another fucking record by Four Eyes."
Well. Four Eyes has gotten even older and here we are again rummaging through the file for the word on pop’s King Wordsmith – the consensus on one of our few genuine post-punk Elder Statesmen. When someone‘s got this far into a pop career it’s hard to sort out your own gut reactions to his latest opus from the multitude of views which have hardened around the body of his oeuvre like calluses. Didn't the German poet Rilke say that fame was merely the sum of all the misunderstandings that gather around a name?
A day or so after my rummaging, Elvis Costello will say things to me like “Writers are worried they’ll look stupid if they don’t have a definite opinion” and “It’s your job to try and make sense of pop music – to someone working in their own career it’s of little consequence and even less interest“. And I will feel that familiar uneasy shame about what I do, the abject inferiority a leech would feel if it only knew it was leeching.
In the meantime I continue my attempt to make sense of Elvis Costello. (Still such a preposterous monicker for misunderstandings to gather about: is one seriously supposed to address this singularly un-Presley-like man as ‘Elvis’ ?) How far Declan MacManus has come from the scrawny, psychotic nerd of 1977, that bespectacled bank clear playing Johnny Rotten in a suburban bedroom mirror. How riddled with infuriating contradictions his musical trajectory has been: bile versus tenderness, violence in tandem with craft, contempt for and fascination with America. But how – after all of it, after 15 albums – how deeply entrenched he is now as a certified musical giant, a singer-songwriter auteur in the Q-venerated line of Dylan and Van and Joni and Neil and Lou and all the other truculent geniuses of the Compact Disc age. (“This is what Charlie Murray says,” Costello will tell me. “He says there’s this Mavericks’ Club and I’m the youngest member.”
The trouble is, there seem to be two distinct Elvis Costellos out there in the amorphous world of contemporary pop discourse. One is the “prestige artist” who made his Warner Brothers debut two years ago with Spike and now follows it up with Mighty Like A Rose. The other is the tormented belligerent frontman of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, one-time music-press Sacred Cow and a man who would rather be seen dead than recording in Los Angeles or consorting with the likes of Paul McCartney. This latter is the Costello we can’t quite let go of, the voice of our alienated youth and our Dylanesque disaffectation with modern romance, culture, politics. It’s the Costello who came back from King Of America to make the thrillingly raw Blood And Chocolate, the Costello of the frantic electric grunge only Nick Lowe could ever get on tape.
Mighty Like A Rose, despite being originally intended as another Elvis Costello & The Attractions record, confirms what Spike intimated: that Costello is indeed, in the words of one of its 13 songs, “All Grown Up”. It’s the music of a man who has detached himself from his past, whose records have become Americanized amplifications of what he would call his earlier “blueprint” songs. In his impatience with the limitations of The Attractions as “a rock ‘n’ roll band”, Costello has forsaken simplicity and authenticity in the pursuit of intricate, “musicianly” sounds and arrangements, courtesy of another stellar lineup of super-sessionmen. What he has also sometimes forsaken is whatever was real in his overly self-conscious unavoidably clever-clogs songs. “The Other Side Of Summer”, released in late April, was Costello at his glibbest. With the crude irony of its Beach Boys pastiche – replete with original Brian Wilson keyboard man Larry Knechtel – this “anti-summer” summer record about the “poisonous surf” and the nightmare of the California dream only succeeded in irritating. The rest of the collection moves rather vaguely from apocalyptic black comedy (“Hurry Down Doomsday”) and seething resentment (“How To Be Dumb”, inspired by Attraction Bruce Thomas’ on-the-road novel The Big Wheel) to the mystical, Sinead O’Connor-style resolution of “Broken”. Probably the most affecting, least affected track on Mighty Like A Rose is “Sweet Pear”, a song unashamedly derived from the music of that extraordinary group The Band: if anyone ever uses the melodic quirks of Robbie Robertson and the voice of Richard Manuel as springboards to a more beautiful song I shall be very surprised.
It is not, let me emphasise, as if Mighty Like A Rose isn't choc-full of lovely details, ingenious twists and turns. Fiachra Trench’s string and woodwind arrangement of “All Grown Up” haunted me for days after I first heard it. The production on the McCartney-co-written “So Like Candy” is shimmeringly sensuous. And co-producer Mitchell Froom’s mini-museum of quaintly antiquated keyboards is used to brilliant effect on the closing “Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4”. Then there are all the customary Costello quotes and in-jokes: apart from The Band and The Beatles and The Beach Boys, there’s anthemic “Rolling Stone” Dylan on “How To Be Dumb”, maudlin Leonard Cohen on “After The Fall”, even a reprise of the “Oliver’s Army”-era Attractions on “Georgie And Her Rival”, (Larry Knechtel seems to have been under orders to mimic Steve Nieve throughout the record.) But Costello’s musical conceits have become every bit as bitty at the post-Confederates aggregations he puts together in the studio: bits of the old Spector/Brian Wilson session army, bits of the Tom Waits band and the Dirty Dozen brass folk, bits of that other Elvis’s old guitar man. He may say he hires these backroom legends for “what they can do now, not because I’m hoping some of that old magic might rub off”, but it’s hard not to feel Costello the fan has somehow assembled a big-budget soundscape out of the innovation of others. Even he admits he’s “a magpie”.
You will appreciate that it is not without a certain trepidation that I enter the Portobello Road pub where I’m due to meet the great man. At first I don’t even see him. I see a shaggy-haired, tramplike figure at the bar but I don’t see Elvis Costello. Then I realise that the tramplike figure is Elvis Costello, his features cleverly obscured by a beard, long reddish-brown hair and dark granny-glasses. Immediately it’s clear that he is tired. He’s been up half the night working in true workaholic style on the music for some Edge Of Darkness-style TV thriller, and tomorrow he’s up at five again to fly to Hamburg.
It’s the press who get an early blast of flak, once we’re seated in an empty café on Notting Hill Gate. “On the last record I got a lot of ‘oh, it’s eclectic’ from interviewers and I thought, surely you can do better than that. It’s obvious that it’s eclectic. The question is “Why is it eclectic?” I decide against telling him that, eclectic or not, I don’t know many people who listened to Spike more than five times. As for Mighty Like A Rose, I hedge my bets by reserving an opinion till the record has been fully digested.
“From my point of view you’ve got to look at the record as a whole. Obviously people are initially going to be drawn to the songs with the biggest tunes or the ones they identify with most, which are often the aggressive ones, but the album does move towards some sort of positive conclusion.”
‘Aggression’ is one word for “How To Be Dumb”; ‘spleen’ might be another. The song seems a pretty vicious form of revenge for the unflattering portrait of “The Pod” in The Big Wheel.
Look, whatever triggered that song, you have to have a bit more wit than just to let yourself descend into a rant. If you stop at the first thought you have on the matter, then you're selling yourself short as a writer and you're definitely selling your audience short. So for me this song is much more universal. There are always people who want to know whether this or that song is about x, y or z. I couldn't care if Bob Dylan is singing about his wife or his dog, what's important is whether or not it's a good song. It's sometimes good to let your frustration out and then turn it into something else, but... to be honest, if there are references to Bruce's book in this song then I wish Bruce could have turned his frustration into something a bit more creative than The Big Wheel, which is a whingeing memoir masquerading very badly as a novel.
Thomas comes in for more mud-slinging when I raise the subject of the original intention to cut Mighty Like A Rose with The Attractions.
“I wanted to do the record with them from a musical point of view, but when they showed their true colours about the financial side of things and several other aspects of it I was kind of glad that I didn't get trapped in a recording studio with them, because it obviously wasn't what they really wanted to do, it was just seen as the opportunity to get a payday they’d felt themselves denied before. It they hadn't been so avaricious, too, they could have had a much better crack at success in America than we ever did when we were on Columbia.”
The decision to use instead the core of musicians he’s employed on Spike – Attractions drummer Pete Thomas among them, it should be pointed out – came out of the two weeks Costello had spent with them at Eddie Grant’s studio in Barbados, cutting an album of his favourite r’n’b and rock ‘n’ roll songs. His very own ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll or Moondog Matinee, one might say, though he’s keeping quiet about the track listing.
“I hope that album will see the light of day, despite the fact that the record business is obviously not geared to theme records like that, the way it used to be. I mean, to me, Sam Cooke’s Night Mood is just as good a record as any of his pop albums, but an equivalent type of artist these days would have a hard job convincing his record company of that. I think it’s called “endangering the product identification’. I’m lucky that my comparative lack of commercial success allows me the freedom still to do things like this. Apart from anything else, I really wanted to get some rock ‘n’ roll cuts with James Burton playing. He did a little bit of picking on King Of America, but not really too many breaks.”
Piecing this motley all-star band together in L.A. once the Attractions idea had fallen through proved surprisingly easy. For Costello, moreover, it proved to be another experience of freedom and flexibility.
“Once you get out of the idea of being in a band, you start to build up a relationship with a pool of musicians. You don’t have the same responsibility to one another but you do have a rapport and you can call one another up anytime. These last two records have been musically much more involved than anything I’d done before, and in the long run I think they’re the better records for having that little bit of variety. I emphasise that I’m not putting anybody down, despite whatever ill-feeling there may be. I just do genuinely think that for most of these songs these particular players have done a job that couldn't have been done by the other people.”
When I press Costello on the point that many people see the new “variety” of his music almost as a defection he becomes noticeably tetchy.