CHICAGO — "Try this," Elvis Costello says, handing a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice across the table to his wife. "It's great. It's really acidic."
He is what he drinks; few words better describe Costello than acidic. During 12 years of recording, Britain's Declan MacManus has established himself as pop's Baron of Bile, possessor of a biting wit and deliverer of cutting commentaries about his life and the world in general. "I see myself sort of increasingly veering towards a kind of rock 'n' roll Three Stooges," Costello, 33, says. "Me, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed."
You can add Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and any of the other few fearless pop songwriters capable of writing with passion and relevance — a rare breed to be sure. Costello certainly fits that description. "I want to bite the hand that feeds me," he sang in 1978's "Radio, Radio," taking a chunk out of the hand that most helps any artist's career.
Pandering just isn't his style. "I do believe that a song or an album is successful when you make it in the studio," says Costello, whose only hit single was 1983's "Everyday I Write the Book," though he has high hopes for his current release, "Veronica." "It's not a failure if it goes into the cut-out racks next week. That's just a coincidence of fashion and timing."
Nevertheless, Costello clearly wants Spike, his latest and most ambitious album, to fare well in the marketplace. That's why he consented to a promotional tour, a non-performing meet 'n' greet outing that today has him sitting in the lobby of the Park Hyatt Hotel here, sipping coffee, juice and Evian and munching handfuls of mixed nuts as curious hotel employees and fans gaze from a respectful distance.
Across the table sits his wife, actress-musician Cait O'Riordan — a former member of the Irish group the Pogues — reading a book about American Indians and occasionally looking up to exchange goo-goo-eyed looks with her husband, whose all-black outfit is relieved by a rhinestone-speckled bolo tie.
Despite a reticent and often downright nasty relationship with the music press, Costello is surprisingly cordial and pleasant, giving generous, detail-laden answers to even basic questions. He still gets his dander up over certain topics, leaning forward in his chair and chomping his nuts harder as he lambastes conservative American radio play lists and pop stars who do commercials for pop and beer makers.
But mostly he's straightforward and funny, pop's most over-analyzed songwriter doing his best to illuminate an album he's quite fond and proud of.
"Frankly, there's a lot that bears explanation on this record," Costello says. "I've done things in a different way than I've done in the past, but not without any reference to things I've done before. I've kind of refined things or distilled things, both lyrically and musically.
"Why? I don't know. It's just what I do. This album is this one, and the next one will be the next one."
One of the most striking differences on Spike is what's missing — his backing band, the Attractions, which had performed on every Costello album since 1978. Though Costello has used guest players before — and on most of 1986's King of America — he'd never done an album without the band intact.
"There were some sounds intended from very early on that are just not found in the Attractions," he explains, "though the album also has some songs which I think are fairly easy to imagine them playing on. I took a poll on it, and Steve (Nieve) just refused unless he was the only keyboard player on the album. I said, `Well, don't hold your breath.'
Costello, currently touring as a solo act, said the turmoil caused by Spike will likely keep the Attractions out of commission when he stages a full-band tour this summer. "I think a couple of them think we're a bit more of a band than I think we are," he says. "The door is open to reconvening for a good idea, but we're not Siamese twins."
Besides his longtime mate T-Bone Burnett, Costello's new collaborators for Spike are a varied bunch that includes pop stalwarts Paul McCartney, Roger McGuinn and Chrissie Hynde; guitarist Marc Ribot and percussionist Michael Blair from Tom Waits' eclectic group, and revered New Orleans players Allen Toussaint and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
McCartney's presence — he co-wrote "Veronica," and "Pads, Paws and Claws" on Spike — has caused the loudest buzz among fans of the ex-Beatle and Costello alike. They got together last year, at McCartney's behest, and wrote 12 songs, some of which will appear on McCartney's next album.
Though a confessed Beatles freak, Costello says he didn't allow himself to be cowed by the idea of working with a man who influenced his own writing. "It would be like saying his faith in me to do the job was misplaced if I allowed myself to be intimidated," he says.
"Inevitably, 'Veronica' and `Pads, Paws and Claws' sound less like him than people might expect. because I'd already done a lot of work on them. The later songs were much more collaborative. There was a lot more stylistic collision involved."
That kind of divergence was part of the strategy in making Spike, according to Costello, and it's probably the most fully realized record of his career because of that. Rather than the angry young man, look-what-the-world's-done-to-me approach of his previous work, Spike is more outward looking, telling stories but still taking stabs at such issues as domestic turbulence, capital punishment, personal insecurities, TV and, in the particularly nasty "Tramp the Dirt Down," Britain's political ills.
Throughout Spike, Costello rolls out images that are downright shocking — from jumping up and down on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's grave in "Tramp the Dirt Down" to God sitting on a water bed and drinking pop in "God's Comic." "Absurd," he says, "would be the best description.
"Everyone keeps going on about how I've gone outside of myself, but I still think it comes from within you. Something like 'Tramp the Dirt Down,' it's extreme, but it's inside my head, you know?"
And what's inside of his head, Costello hastens to remind us, is less common than the pop pap he might hear when he turns on the radio in his hotel room.
"I refuse to accept the idea that I'm abnormal because I don't readily repeat myself," he says, leaning forward. "I think everyone else is out of step; the uniformity of their careers shows an amazing amount of artistic cowardice. Maybe that's because they don't have any ideas."
Then he smirks and takes another swig of orange juice.