West Australian, January 12, 2022
Music legend Elvis Costello tackles ageing
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down festivals and concert halls across the world, Elvis Costello raced home from England to New York.
However, the 67-year-old new wave icon refused to, in his words, sit "cowering" in his house feeling sorry for himself.
No, the artist born Declan MacManus got busy.
Since late 2020, Costello has unveiled an album, Hey Clockface, an EP, a deluxe re-issue of 1979 album Armed Forces, and a Spanish-language refashioning of 1978 classic This Year's Model.
And on Friday, the seemingly indefatigable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee unveils his 32nd studio album, The Boy Named If, recorded "with" his loyal band, The Imposters.
Well, Costello was in his back garden in New York, bassist Davey Faragher was in his guest room in Los Angeles, the same city where Pete Thomas laid down drum tracks in his basement, while organist Steve Nieve was "in a convent in Normandy."
While the sonic distancing wasn't by choice, the prolific English music legend reckons it didn't detract from the recording process.
"We discovered that, really, it's only a frame of mind," Costello says from home shortly after finishing a 22-date US tour with The Imposters plus guest guitar guru Charlie Sexton.
"Honestly, I sort of found we did better work when we weren't looking at each other. You lose some of that inhibition that creeps in when you've done it a lot of times," he continues. "We've worked together, three of us, for 45 years you know."
While the quartet were working off demos Costello had made in Helsinki and Paris while recording Hey Clockface, the new methodology inspired the seasoned musicians to experiment.
"You want the music to be alive to bring that vividly to people," he says. "It made us play differently in a good way and (there were) good surprises."
The Boy Named If possesses the same spiky urgency of his new-wave-era heyday with The Attractions, the forerunners of today's Imposters.
While Costello is as well-known for his collaborations with artists outside of the rock 'n' roll world, ranging from Tony Bennett, Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach and The Brodsky Quartet, it seems traces of the angry young man of "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio" still remain.
The chatty Grammy Award-winner says that ageing, specifically the transition from childhood to adulthood to old age, is a thread that runs through an album populated by callow youths, put-upon waitresses and disgraceful old scoundrels.
"If is the imaginary friend that some people have as a child but when they get a little older it's less endearing for them to blame transgressions on another side of themselves," Costello explains.
"It's one thing to say my imaginary friend broke the vase, while it's quite another thing to say, you know, 'I had to sleep with her', to your wife or girlfriend."
The rocker adds that there's not quite terror but unsettling uncertainty about going from the "wonder of childhood" to the "self-consciousness of teenage years" to "the older time when you're told to stop acting like a child."
The full title of the album is The Boy Named If (And Other Children's Stories), and there are 6000 super deluxe editions of the record that come with an 88-page book featuring short stories and illustrations concocted by the multi-talented star.
The idea for the limited release came when Costello was informed that a vinyl version was unlikely.
"I was presented with the puzzle of how to have a physical object at the centre of this release when so much music now is sort of swept away on the stream of sound," he says.
"The accessibility of (music streaming) is a wonderful thing and you can make chance discoveries, which can be really fantastic.
"The bad side is that you put your heart and soul into a sequence of songs intending them to tell a specific story... only to see it broken up and float away."
Costello adds that the short stories, which take the same titles as the 13 songs, aim to set the scene before the song begins, provide a postscript to a song or simply more background on the characters featured in his sonic vignettes.
Costello says he enjoyed the project and "loses himself" using his "electric pencil" to create the garish, somewhat naïve illustrations that always seem to feature green-eyed people.
"I kind of love it when people don't like the pictures because that just makes me want to do more," he laughs.
The Boy Named If and Hey Clockface were both made with Argentine-born producer Sebastian Krys, who is best known for his work on Latin pop releases from Shakira, Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias.
While Krys facilitated Spanish Model, the sensational Spanish language remake of This Year's Model, the seed for the covers' album was sown when Costello was asked to provide a song for David Simon and George Pelecanos' gritty drama series, The Deuce.
Costello's re-recording of "This Year's Girl" with fresh vocals from New York-based singer Natalie Bergman became the theme song for the second season.
More importantly, it revealed that the original tapes of This Year's Model — home to "Pump It Up," "Radio, Radio" and "Little Triggers" — were in "pretty good order."
"When we made This Year's Model, you know, we hadn't been to America, we weren't really thinking about American FM radio," Costello recalls.
"I think the extent of our ambition was to have a hit in England.
"The record was mixed with the intention of competing with ABBA and Cliff Richard.
"It wasn't really designed to take on Led Zeppelin, you know, it wasn't a rock record in that sense. It was mixed as a pop record with a rock 'n' roll attitude."
Costello says that they found takes recorded with producer and doyen of British power pop Nick Lowe on which "the band sounded even wilder than they did on the original record."
Krys recruited the cream of Latin singers, including Despacito singer Luis Fonsi, Spanish cancion singer Vega and Columbian superstar Sebastián Yatra, whom Costello describes as South America's answer to Justin Timberlake.
Released in September last year, Spanish Model has already opened doors in Central and South America — a region relatively untouched by Costello's genius.
He's barely toured in countries where he's arguably best known for his cover of Charles Aznavour's ballad "She," which he recorded for 1999 film Notting Hill.
"I've played once in Buenos Aires and I've never played in Mexico, which seems incredible," he says. "But now we might conceivably be able to do that."
Costello has already returned the favour by recording the duet, Beer Blues, with Argentinian el hombre del piano Fito Páez, but he'd like to go even further.
"I would love to write new songs for some singers who sang on Spanish Model to say thanks," he says, "because I really appreciated the heart and soul they put into it, and the humour.
"It was just something quite different. I don't believe every record could stand that inquiry — even in my catalogue, let alone anybody else's.
"I don't think it's an ongoing thing... you know, here's the Serbo-Croat version of (1986 album) Blood & Chocolate."
While there may not be a Finnish remake of his 1989 album Spike or German reboot of My Aim Is True in the works, Costello did recently unveil La Face de Pendule a Coucou — a Francophone reworking of songs from Hey Clockface.
The six-track EP co-starred Iggy Pop — funnily enough, Costello's wife and Canadian jazz pianist Diana Krall roped in the former Stooge — Steve Nieve and his wife, French writer Muriel Teodori, and Gallic silver screen royalty in Isabelle Adjani, who opens the release with a recitation of "Revolution #49."
"That was like something in a dream, you know, because this is an actor whose work I've admired since I was in my mid-20s," Costello says.
"And to suddenly hear her voice reading my text and then singing a beautiful improvised melody.
"Lovely," he adds. "This is the kind of reward you get for trying this little thing. It was this little jewel of a record. It doesn't have to go out and conquer the world."
The world can wait, even if the normally hard-touring Costello is champing at the bit to take these news back out on the road.
Four years ago, he cancelled six dates of a European tour when he returned to the stage too soon after having surgery to treat cancer.
"I'm not a kid," Costello says. "I did certainly have something that could have made me very ill that was taken care of simply but because I was a little foolhardy and how quickly I went back to work, people heard about it.
"I would have kept it to myself because there was nothing that anybody needed to worry about," he continues, describing the health scare as "a small inconvenience."
"But once it was dramatised in the tabloids, you know, and they had me apparently dying... it unfortunately became part of your biography."
Costello described the concern from the UK press as "insincere."
"I know they don't care if I live or die," he chuckles. "Die would probably be the preferred option.
"But I don't want people to worry about me and I'm very hale and hearty."
The Boy Named If is out on January 14.
The West Australian, January 12, 2022
Simon Collins interviews Elvis Costello.
Photo by Mark Seliger.