NEW YORK — Years ago, former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth speculated that rock critics must love Elvis Costello because most look like him — presumably meaning nerdy, bespectacled and unlikely to appear in videos featuring women in bikinis or cages.
Chatting in his midtown hotel room, Costello, now 47, still appears much the same as he did back in 1977, when his debut album established the singer-songwriter as a critics' favorite. But in truth, some have never forgiven Costello for maturing — that is, evolving beyond his punk-pop roots and applying his talents to a wide array of projects and styles.
Over the past decade, he has collaborated with artists ranging from progressive classical outfit the Brodsky Quartet to the Jazz Passengers and gospel group the Fairfield Four. His more recent recordings include the Grammy-winning Painted From Memory, for which he co-wrote songs with Burt Bacharach, and a CD Costello produced for the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Poll any group of pop pundits, though, and at least one or two will say they pine for the raw energy that defined his late-'70s oeuvre.
"What they don't understand," Costello muses of these skeptics, "is that even the 'rawest' kinds of music they point to were usually not done as mindlessly as they would like to believe. They're musical conservatives, really, because they're scared of any idea of music beyond their understanding."
Ironically, such conservatives may enjoy Costello's new CD, When I Was Cruel, as much as more open-minded fans. Full of bracing tunes and taut, rugged arrangements, Cruel, which came out last week, may be the closest thing to a rock 'n' roll album Costello has released in years — depending on how you define rock 'n' roll, a term the singer has grown increasingly uncomfortable with.
"I'm more interested in R&B," says Costello. "It's always attracted me, though I had never really put it on a record. I'm not trying to make R&B or dance music, but this is a very rhythm-driven record."
The material on Cruel also features the kind of wry, witty lyrics that Costello is famous for. One track, "Radio Silence," revisits the theme of an early Costello single: the lack of freshness and substance afflicting the medium. This time, however, he's taking aim at talk radio, whose "only benefit," he observes, "is that there may be some people who don't go on a rampage because they get to express their rage and dread in a relatively benign way — as opposed to getting a gun and shooting up the local McDonald's."
Though his views on music radio aren't much more approving, Costello isn't losing sleep over his new effort's prospects for airplay. "Maybe somebody will get bold, and the audience reaction will be good. But I'll almost certainly be disqualified for all kinds of reasons — mostly for just being out of the bounds of age. I'm not unhappy about that, though. I accept it."
It would seem Costello is too busy these days to spend much time moping over chart numbers. In addition to kicking off a national tour on May 19, he is planning to record his first orchestral score, Il Sogno, which was originally commissioned by an Italian dance company and will be performed at UCLA in July. Costello also co-wrote a song with his wife, Cait O'Riordan, for seminal soul man Solomon Burke's upcoming album, and has been flirting with the idea of "a storyteller record," which could involve different singers delivering a tale through his songs.
"In some ways, I feel I'm just getting started," Costello says. "I have a decent understanding of what I've done in the past; I'm aware that some songs I wrote have stuck around, and I'm still happy to sing them. But I don't have nostalgia about anything, let alone records I've made. There are lots of things left to do."