NEW YORK — Elvis Costello, considered by critics the most talented songwriter to emerge from English new-wave rock, has released two records this year that he considers to be his most compassionate work.
King of America was released last spring, co-produced with T-Bone Burnett and used country studio musicians.
"There are not so many mean songs on it," Costello said in an interview. "Some of my most successful songs have been quite malevolent. Those things are in me, like in everybody else. When I start thinking about angry things I become meaner. I've got some pretty mean songs lying festering away in my songbag, you know."
Blood and Chocolate, Costello's 13th LP in North America, is a bitter and desperate record, obsessed with betrayal and heartache. He recorded the album with his long-time band, The Attractions.
"Over the last couple of years I haven't been doing songs of great emotional substance. People's feelings have been strong for more vivid material that came earlier in my career. I haven't gone to the hearts of people. The ones they get excited about are the old songs, still.
"Some people do their washing up to records " said Costello, who thinks his songs require concentrated listening. "There's no handbook on how to listen to my records but I think it is unlikely people wash up to mine."
An aura of mystery and unavailability has surrounded Costello through much of his career. "It was for avoiding having to do interviews," he said. "They had written the article before they came to you. There was very little point in saying anything.
"It was easier to foster being difficult or mysterious or violent or all three, so people stayed away from you ... Let them write the stupid nonsense they were going to write anyway. All I wanted to do was get on with the work."
Costello lives in London. He put his real name, Declan McManus, on King of America. On Blood and Chocolate, he called himself Napoleon Dynamite.
"I'm 32. I was 22 when I started. It's a way of saying that a period of time has elapsed and that's my name. You're not to take my name changing too seriously. There's no psychoanalytical reasoning behind it."
About changing Declan McManus to Elvis Costello, he said, "Memanus was hard to say over the phone ... My great-grandfather's name was Costello. My manager added Elvis, like a stunt, a life-long stunt."
Costello's grandfather came to the United States in the 1930s as a ship's trumpet player. His father was a trumpet player and singer. "I've got a trumpet; I've always meant to take it up," he said. "Somebody gave me a guitar. It has taken up all my time since."
He left school when he was 18. "I was living in Liverpool. I worked for a bank, then a cosmetics firm and then I got in this business.
"I made my first records while still working," he said. "I'd take sick days off. I gave up the bank when they said I had to stand outside when the bullion was delivered and blow a whistle if there was a raid. The first person they're going to shoot is the guy with the whistle."
Costello has recently been doing some record producing for the Irish band the Pogues. "I'm not technically minded as a producer. I'm more like a musical director. I grab something with imaginative feeling and strong emotional content and capture it. I can describe what I want to hear.
"T-Bone Burnett worked that way with me. He told me not to lose my nerve if I failed to get one version down. He told me not to tinker with it. Remember why I wrote it instead of getting anxious and trying to change it."