He's being described these days as The New Nice Elvis Costello ("a pussycat," his publicist says) and those who know the angry songs or the Famous Barroom Brawl of 1979 (he later apologized for racial slurs he said he didn't mean) may indeed be surprised at this year's model.
"Pleased to meet you," he says, which right away is a nice thing to say. "I'm hungry. Would you like a sandwich?" He orders shrimp for himself, pours a glass of bottled water, and settles into a chair in his hotel room.
Subsequently he's cordial, articulate, patient. Which is not to say that if rock 'n' roll voted tomorrow, he would win Mr. Congeniality.
"Ninety-five per cent of rock today is junk," he says. "It sounds as if it's done by a committee or a computer. Remember how Hank Williams sounded in The Last Picture Show? Like a voice from Mars, all mysterious and wonderful. Like Elvis at the beginning, or the Beatles.
"Today the soul is gone. If I'd believed all that stuff in the '60s about saving the world, I would find Starship today absolutely galling.
"What frustrates me as a writer is that interpretive singing is dying. There's no one today I even want to do my songs. Most of the covers, like Linda Ronstadt's, just imitate my version. The people who understand tongs now write themselves, and the singers all have that Broadway style. Have you heard Barbra Streisand's 'Somewhere'? Horrendous."
Now it's not hard to find complaints about the state of rock 'n' roll. What's unusual is Costello can do something about it — and does, with his new album King of America (due Feb. 27).
It's a gem, a lean, direct acoustic album on which Costello is Joined by guitarist James Burton and a hunk of Elvin Presley's TCB band. "On my last two albums, the keyboards were almost overpowering," he says. "So I wanted a record where there wasn't a single extra note or word. In musical construction, this is my simplest record since the first.
"It's also, to me, a punk album — in the sense that it's anti-success and doesn't aspire to fit any current format. Formats are weighted against me, anyway; I'm not at all sure my records can get a fair trial on radio. But it will be interesting to see if MTV likes the video ("Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood")."
Format-fitting or not, King Of America does illustrate how many styles can coexist within an acoustic rock 'n' roll framework. There's the country-tinged "Glitter Gulch." A smooth ballad, "Our Little Angel," that recalls "Alison." The bitter rocker, "Little Palaces," in which he absolutely spits a line about pity.
Sprinkled throughout are Costello's familiar knives ("She said that she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use").
"The important thing," he says, "is balance. I took one pure pop radio hit off this album because I wasn't happy with it. A song like 'Big Light,' about hangovers, gives relief from the emotionally intense songs. I'm not Leonard Cohen, where you only play the record if you're in one mood."
Around this time a woman with short spiky hair walks in, sits on his chair and gives him a kiss. She turns to a visitor. "Excuse me. I haven't seen him in two hours."
That seems to be about the limit for which he can be trusted alone. He's had too much coffee, she tells him. He's smoked too many cigarets. "I know," he says. "But these interviews ... I need energy." She looks at the ashtray. "ALL yours? That's enough. No more."
"Yes, Mum," he mutters with gentle sarcasm, and they discuss seeing Hannah and Her Sisters, which brings up a point. In analyses of Costello's work, the Woody Allen parallel is not the worst: guilt, anger and sexual frustration exorcised through wit.
So how about it? "I leave things like that to critics," he says. "You do find people sometimes who seem to have a sort of kindred spirit — like if you met them, you could have a beer and find something to talk about."
And as for the New Nice Elvis? Any happier these days' "You have to measure it out. Sometimes in the past I may have given impressions and other times I was doing impressions. The only lesson, I think, is don't believe everything you read."