When Elvis Costello emerged in the late 1970s, he was truly shocking — a seething, bitter, sarcastic, sneering, verbose (he would have used just as many adjectives) post-punk poet who spat two-minute tirades of sexual jealousy and betrayal into his mic, slashed with his guitar and gave great chorus.
Over the years, Costello has shocked us again and again — when he went country, when he went soul, when he went French balladeer, when he went classical. But this. Well this takes the biscuit. Costello has just made a whole album of melt-your-heart love songs.
It's not the love that is shocking. Of all the "new-wavers" in the late 1970s and 1980s, he probably did love better than any. But from the start, and for all the tenderness of "Alison," when he whisper-wailed, "I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress," his love was cheated and disgusted.
A decade or so later, he wrote another classic love song, "I Want You." It begins as a honeyed statement of desire, but becomes something tormented and tormenting, as the gentle words are repeated till they become a screaming sneer. For Costello, love has never been far removed from hate.
But not on the new record, North. Costello himself admits that North isn't easy to describe. It's certainly not one of those overstuffed hotchpotch albums he's produced in recent years: sagging with tunes and words and seemingly interminable, for all the good bits.
On North, there are 11 songs, all written at the piano, most of them two or three minutes long. They tell the story of love lost and love found. The early songs are low, melancholic and regretful. The later songs are ecstatic. The album works as a song cycle, a lieder for the 21st century.
Elvis and I go back a long way. Elvis helped me through adolescence. I listened to him in my bedroom — he sang about all sorts of things, but the ones I remember best are the tales of woe about those beautiful girls who would go off with David Watts, oblivious to Elvis's sincerity and burning soul. Elvis was made for misunderstood young love-hearts — to some extent literally, because he was a construct.
It was his manager, Jake Riviera, who suggested Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus change his name to Elvis Costello for the sake of his art and his bank balance. The name was soaked in attitude. No one in real life dared call themselves Elvis, let alone this computer programmer with the disproportionately big head.
The real Elvis splayed his legs and wiggled his hips, and was the personification of sex, while this Elvis was stiff, sexless and ludicrous. With his skinny drainpipe legs bent at 10 to three, and those massive specs, he played up his dweebishness. He looked like an Etch-A-Sketch cartoon.
Before he knew it, he was on Top Of The Pops, feted for being so uncool he was cool. He had been playing music for six or seven years to little acclaim, and here he was finally hailed an overnight success at 23. Costello thought it was funny. He'd always had a thing for irony.
He orders tea for us — English tea in a hotel suite. He's in his late 40s, and ever so grown up these days. Brown suit, brown cod-crocodile shoes, striking pink silk tie, elegantly receding brown hair. He is certainly not as skinny as he was in the 1970s, nor is he as rounded and shaggy as he became a few years ago. He looks healthy and strangely content.
I ask him if he's surprised to have made North. "Yeah, well everything came as a shock to me." He doesn't specify what the everything is, but I assume he's referring to the subject of the album — the break-up of his 16-year marriage to songwriter and former Pogues member Cait O'Riordan, his subsequent desolation, and his new relationship with glamorous jazz chanteuse Diana Krall. He swiftly moves on to the album's genesis. "I was on the road last September, and the songs just came to me one after another. Sometimes you're not even thinking this is a group of songs, whereas I knew right away these were. They were immediately a different language, a different register, different emotion, different lyrics." For the first time, he says, he wrote the songs on the album in sequence. The album was recorded in New York, where he spends much of his time these days.
Yes, I say, it does all seem so different, not least the openness. As soon as I agree with him, he politely disagrees. "I don't think it's that different, actually," he says. "King Of America and Blood & Chocolate, for example, are both different in tone from this, but there's a lot of similarity."
I'm not sure if Costello is arguing with me or with himself, but it's good to see a trace of the traditional bristle. Perhaps, I say, open is the wrong word, it's more that these songs are irony-free. In the past, Costello often used irony as an emotional safety net — on one level, he exposed himself but on another he didn't because so much of what he sang was double-edged ("Hope You're Happy Now" when he doesn't hope you are, "I'm Not Angry" when he is).
"Yes, there is no irony," he says. The trouble is, he says, you get known for one thing, and then the media leaves the young you frozen in aspic. "For instance, I don't think there's been a single pun on any of my records for 10 years and yet I'm known for that because of the first few albums. And the same with irony — it's an overplayed hand and it's also a juvenile hand. The deliberate seeking of darkness and the sardonic, and the denial of feeling and the denial of trust and belief, it's something that you do when you're younger and it's something that is right — part of it's genuine and part of it is insecurity. I'm not saying that was all wrong. I love a lot of the songs I wrote then, I still sing them, but there's room in the world for lots of different points of view, lots of different types of expression, even inside the repertoire of one songwriter and singer."
In the early days, the songs he covered by other writers couldn't have been more different from his own — "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?" and "My Funny Valentine" were straight from the heart and totally unambiguous. In their openness, they seemed to be an acknowledgment of his own limitations.
I tell him that I love so many of his songs, even though I don't have a clue what they are about. Fair enough, he says, neither did he. "I don't see any reason why you should have to understand them. I would always defend the right to create a vague picture, or a blurred picture with words that adds up differently to different people because I've done it countless times. It's like the chance Polaroid that is better than the sharp-focus, well-taken photograph. There's a song on the last record, 'Tart', that doesn't make any sense at all."
He comes to a stop, but not for long. "In the case of North I don't think people will have that problem because it is pretty damn clear what's going on, y'know. I can tell you how I did it, when I did it, but I can't tell you more about what it is, because everything is in there. I'm not saying I won't answer any more questions, but... " It seems like a pre-emptive strike. Costello hates talking about his private life.
The first songs are incredibly painful. The album starts with a track called "You Left Me In The Dark." Before I ask the question, he answers. "I think people will assume that it is about romantic loss, but it is actually about bereavement. It is about someone contemplating the last loving thing said by someone who has gone. Y'know, people always assume that love happens detached from other realities. But other realities happen concurrently with changes in the heart. Whether or not these songs happened exactly as they appeared to happen to me doesn't matter in my opinion. It doesn't make it better to listen to, it doesn't make it more authentic." He's still not mentioned any names, so I take the plunge. In the first half of the album there is the sense that you can't understand how your relationship with Cait has ended, I say. Silence.
"I've got to say, Simon, and I want to really stress, it's entirely at your discretion to mention her name, but I very much want to be respectful of her independence as a person. And one of the things you have to say when you part with somebody is that they have the right not to be drawn into the consideration of your life. It's really important that I don't say anything that puts her in the public focus. It's not fair, she didn't ask for it. [Pause.] Then there is the other side of that equation, which is I write, that's what I do, I draw on personal experience. [Pause.] But as I keep saying, the importance to me is that people see themselves in the songs rather than pore over them as voyeurs would. I think that would be a fairly dissatisfying listen, frankly."
There is something of the schoolmaster about Costello. But he has a point. The record works beautifully because it tells a universal story. There are no names named on the album, no tales told, no scores settled. The lyrics of North are incredibly personal, but the details could apply to any of us who has been in love (the coat he wraps around her shoulders, the way he can't stop telling friends about her and becomes the ultimate love bore). Has Cait heard North?
"I don't know. I'm not being evasive... but I have very consciously not written an album about any unhappiness I lived through, or any bitter feeling I have." Instead, he says, he wants to express the hope that there is for anybody. "You've reached an impasse and something else can happen." He often takes the most circuitous route to answer a question, but he does answer. Actually, by his standards he is being a right old gossip. He says there are wonderful records that document relationships, but they only mean anything to us because they transcend biography.
"Take Blood On The Tracks (Bob Dylan) or Blue (Joni Mitchell), they are two albums that appear to be rooted in very, very painful personal experience, yet they have humour in them, some sense of joy as well as desolation. And at least one of those albums has a tremendous amount of anger that my record doesn't have." He smiles, amazed at what he's just said.
"That's the biggest shock — that it doesn't have any anger in it. That's useless to me, to have anger or recrimination in my songs because I have spent such a long time talking about matters of anger."
In recent years, Costello has reissued old albums with detailed essays about the history of the songs. "If you look at the sleeve notes of the reissue of Blood & Chocolate, I said, very honestly, when I wrote that record I felt I had put aside fucking up my life, which is what the first seven years of my career were about, so I could write songs about it." (That's when he started doing the pop star thing — drinking himself silly, being loud and abusive, leaving his first wife for a model.)
Later, the songs were less immediate, more reflective. It felt a natural evolution — he was married to Cait, in a stable relationship, and he wanted to explore anger rather than live it. But, of course, it's never as simple as that. "Then you have to start questioning whether you are doing that to avoid emotional truths, and whether you're all wearing disguises for a good or bad reason."
And, even as he talks, the great contrarian seems to be arguing it out in his head. I ask him if all the bile of the early days was heartfelt. "Well, I don't actually agree with that..." No, no, I burble, there was tenderness there as well. "Yeah, that's the thing. I'm not complaining about it retrospectively, I think it's understandable that it makes good copy and I play along with it and up to it sometimes, so I can't complain that the lasting impression of those first few years focuses more on the anger than the tenderness. There have been outbursts of much more profound anger since. Y'know, 'Tramp The Dirt Down', the whole of Mighty Like A Rose are much angrier than the first three albums put together. And specific and focused anger. And honed. And, y'know, watered and fertilised anger."
The lyrics to "Tramp The Dirt Down," dedicated to Margaret Thatcher, are possibly the most bilious he has written.
- ... there's one thing, I know, I'd like to live long enough to savour
- That's when they finally put you in the ground
- I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.
He's still thinking about his reputation. "You know," he says out of the blue, "the thing that I never, ever got was misogyny and that was attached to me a lot early on. A lot. And I could never get that. A lot of the songs early on were more disappointed that anybody would fall for the cliché of romance or fashion or a cheap version of love. And that's a consistent theme... "
Not a misogynist, I say, but you did come out with some right bollocks. "Oh, absolutely. Tons of bollocks." He grins. He once said his driving forces were guilt and revenge. "Shall I tell you something? That much-repeated quote was said after 14 Pernods, in one of those kind of fits of beautiful drunken bravado when you didn't throw up and you didn't fall down and you suddenly had a moment of clarity that you thought was like the most original thought."
I remind him of another time when he was drunk, this time in America in 1979, and he described Ray Charles as "an ignorant, blind nigger". He doesn't need reminding. In the past, he has called that the low point of his career.
"Read the sleeve notes to Get Happy!! I'll get it sent to you, and that's what I'm going to say about that."
A few days later the album arrives in the post. In the sleeve notes, Costello describes how, after the success of the album Armed Forces, he was embraced by the corporate pop machine and he was spoiling for a fight.
"This would come to an end in April 1979 at Columbus, Ohio, where a ridiculous drunken argument would culminate in me speaking the exact opposite of my true beliefs in an attempt to provoke a fight that inevitably arrived. That I was speaking in some absurd, exaggerated, supposedly ironic humour, in which everything is expressed in the reverse of that which one knows to be true, is no excuse. There was nothing sparkling or glorious about the wordplay, just the seed of madness. It was the product of crazed indulgence."
Afterwards, Costello received more than 100 death threats, his records were pulled from US playlists and his shows were picketed by the very anti-racist organisation for which he had appeared six months earlier. "The humour of outrage never did sit that well with people and is particularly useless if the intent is garbled drunkenly," he explains.
Get Happy!! was released the following year, and was his tribute to the soul music that had been such an inspiration for him. It was something of an apology. But he never said as much. Pride got the better of him. Costello says that the only time he has ever really been in fashion was in 1979, and he was determined, wittingly or unwittingly, to screw it up.
"I hated just about everything in my world, reserving the greatest disdain for myself," he writes on Get Happy!! After writing all those songs about being a loser, about not being able to get the girl, what was it like when he realised that he could get her? "Well, I hated that. You start to feel wretched about it. For a short period of time I think it brings about a certain self-satisfaction and greed, and then you start to hate yourself pretty quickly." For what? "For being everything you said you didn't like."
I ask him if he feels more secure with age. "Well, you can become more insecure because you've got more to lose. History teaches us that people become more conservative with a small c, more pragmatic or cautious, or timid, whichever word you want to use for not taking chances, and I sort of feel the opposite."
Security, for Costello, is the willingness to flirt with insecurity. Music is in his bones. He talks about growing up in Liverpool and London with his mum Lillian and his dad Ross McManus, the singer and trumpet player. (The only recorded song they ever sang together was "I'm A Secret Lemonade Drinker" for the R White's advert when he was 17.)
His grandfather had been an army musician who became a ship's musician. "He went to America in the 20s, Kyoto, India. The only ambition I ever had was to see the world, and I've done that." He has apartments in New York and Dublin, but he says he doesn't really feel as if he lives in any one particular place these days. Costello has a grown-up son from his first marriage. What does he do? "He writes..." And he stops himself. His son is another person whose privacy he doesn't want to invade.
What he really loves talking about is music. He tells me how Burt Bacharach, with whom he recorded Painted From Memory, taught him the importance of paring down words ("Three or four years ago I was telling anybody who would listen that my ambition was to not write any words at all"); how he recently heard a wonderful album by the lost soul star Howard Tate; how he and the Attractions were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame along with the Clash and the Police ("The Police were so bad, so appallingly bad, really bad," he says with relish. "It was so funny. It was all the weaknesses of the band amplified by time. Sting just looked like he'd rather be anywhere else. Actually, the unthinkable happened — I felt sorry for him"); how he learnt the importance of phrasing through listening to Sinatra. Then he's on to the intolerant political climate in America and how the Dixie Chicks were lambasted for saying that they were ashamed of coming from Texas, the same state as George Bush.
"The media is so contrived and hysterical. It's terrible. The political debate is so belligerent, all shouting, just like a cartoon, it's all about logos and slogans." As for British politics, he says, they are also just glorified ad men. "In the old days there was an establishment against which people railed. Even up to the Margaret Thatcher days there was an establishment. Although it was a new establishment, it was still an establishment. Now there isn't."
Typical Costello — detests the establishment, and complains when it disappears. "Obviously there is a big and bad world happening out there, and maybe there is another time to sing of those things, but I cannot think of anything better to do than to sing of love right now." Has he ever written about love in such a way before? "No, either because it didn't occur to me or because it just didn't happen."
I ask him if he ever steps back and asks how the young nerd who lost "Alison" could end up with Diana Krall. "Well, people will always say that, won't they?" And he decides to answer a different question — one that he seems to have asked himself. "Well, we just all want to find some peace. You can entertain dark thoughts, you can retain your sense of indignation, disgust with things that deserve those responses and still have some sense of peace..."
He asks me if I think people will listen to the record for what it is, rather than as a piece of potted biography. Well, I say, it's inevitable that people will be interested in the story behind it. "I hope it doesn't crowd anybody," he says. "My intention was not to crowd. It was to make something beautiful. It's the only record I've ever made that aspired to beauty as the prime objective. That's really all I was trying to do. Make something beautiful."
What amazes me about North is Costello's state of total bliss in the second half of the album. While in the first half he was astonished to find himself so lost, now he is even more astonished to find such love. I'm sure he'll probably strike me down for saying so, but I've never heard such rapture in his songs. For once he doesn't disagree. "Well, that's a nice word. I think it is rapturous. Yeah, I'll accept that, thank you."