Elvis Costello is rocking again.
But, as usual with this perpetually restless artist, there's a twist. His new sound runs a guitar-based rock combo through a hip-hop production blender. Eerie atmospherics evoke dread, one-chord drones build tension, and Costello sneers, snarls, croons and whispers like a man with unspeakable needs. Chicagoans can catch the new Costello in two shows Sunday and on his new album, When I Was Cruel, which hits stores Tuesday.
It's the latest zag in a career ziggier than David Bowie's. Call him a dilettante or a genius — or maybe a little of both. Costello has ventured where few rockers have dared to go in the last decade. He's collaborated with Burt Bacharach and appear-ed in a Spice Girls movie; he's done a duet with Tony Bennett, written songs for opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me; and he's recorded albums with avant-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and the classical string players in the Brodsky Quartet.
All of this activity may have buffed up Costello's reputation as the most versatile songwriter of his generation, but to others it seemed like a series of diversionary tactics that played away from his greatest strengths. To this constituency, Costello's rock albums — This Year's Model, Get Happy!, Blood and Chocolate — are the core of his catalogue. But after recording Brutal Youth in 1996 with his longtime backing band, the Attractions, rock all but vanished from his repertoire.
Then a funny thing happened to Costello on the way to attending a Lucinda Williams concert outside New York City.
"I'm walking down the street and saw this Sears Roebuck 15-watt amplifier sitting in the window, and it just sort of spoke to me, and said, `Buy me, I am the sound of your next record,'" says Costello, calling from his home in Dublin, Ireland, before embarking on a tour that brings him to House of Blues for a concert Sunday (tickets are being distributed through show sponsor WXRT-93.1 FM) and a free in-store appearance Friday at Tower Records.
"The amplifier held out from the first to the last day of recording, then it died. So we put it in lockup with all our other gear to be repaired. And a week later there was a flood and the lockup was covered in seven feet of water. All the guitars were drowned. So that's the last rock 'n' roll record I can make now, because all my guitars are dead."
Let's hope he's joking, because the result of Costello's impulse buy is a terrific rock 'n' roll album. When I Was Cruel is built around the sound of his reverb-drenched guitar, but it's not an exercise in nostalgia.
Costello enlisted three young co-producers (Ciaran Cahill, Leo Person and Kieran Lynch) to help him break ground rather than revisit old glories. "They were young enough that they didn't have a preconceived idea about how I should sound," he says.
Costello found inspiration by turning on the radio and hearing "all this good stuff happening in hip-hop and R&B at the moment. We know all these songs are about the same thing, now: give me your cell phone number, you've got my credit card, I want my Mercedes. But the production is absolutely mind-bending. All the sonic geniuses are working in hip-hop and R&B, some in the commercial end, like Timbaland, and some in the more sound-collage kind of thing, like that guy El-P on the Cannibal Ox album [The Cold Vein]. That's the kind of boldness that I wanted to work with."
Costello still brought his rigorous standards for songwriting to the proceedings, but worked from the hips up, first with beat-box rhythms, then enlisting Attractions drummer Pete Thomas in the studio. Both the processed and real-time grooves were then further mangled in the mixing process.
"Technology is more flexible now than ever before, the machines more plastic, and you can bend them to your will," Costello says. "They seem compatible with distorted guitars. There are not many true pure sounds on this record at all, and everything resonates and hums together, so you get a good rhythmic noise, which is all you need: get the drive for the song, and tell a story or summon up a feeling that you want people to understand. That's what rock 'n' roll has always been about."
The ultimate example of that fusion between song and sound is the album's masterstroke, "When I was Cruel No. 2." Costello was knocked out by an Italian pop record that his wife, singer Cait O'Riordan, played him one day. The singer, Mina, was a '60s siren, "something of a counterpart in terms of emotion to Dusty Springfield," Costello says. Costello looped the first few hypnotic bars of one of Mina's songs to fashion a rhythm track, then laid his own guitar melody over the top to create a fascinating slice of rock exotica.
"There is something about that groove," Costello says. "I did it on a television show the other day, and I noticed in the audience that some of the older guys looked a little blank, while the women were swaying softly to themselves. Guys like that urgent rock 'n' roll, that fast rhythm, which says a lot about guys, I guess. But the women had a much different response."
Costello had a different response to punk rock, as well, when he emerged in the mid-'70s. His mindset at the time is illuminated in liner notes and demo tracks from his earlier albums, currently being reissued by Rhino Records under Costello's supervision. In the notes to My Aim Is True, his 1977 debut, he describes how he envisioned a string arrangement by Bernard Herrmann on "Watching the Detectives" but didn't have the tools or budget to do it. Instead, he came up with a track that defined his sound for the next 25 years.
"There is a lot of music made that way: You have a dream about what it should sound like, but then you're stuck with making it with the only resources you have," he says. "It forces you to be resourceful in ways you never could have imagined, and you find your own voice."