Clip: Everything's coming up roses
- Everything's coming up roses
The angry rocker of old is back on Elvis Costello's
new album - but don't expect instant gratification.
Songs, like flowers, need time to bloom, he tells Mark Edwards
It's a slightly worrying trend. Rock musicians are getting
up earlier. Traditionally, of course, rock stars have kept
the hours of vampires. Rising late, stumbling into the
studio as the rest of us finish work, and laying down
their best tracks while the rest of us watch soaps on TV.
Things, apparently, are changing. Earlier this year, I
interviewed Noel Gallagher. Could I, his PR wondered,
do the interview at 10? I was just explaining that it was a
bit later than I'd prefer when she cut me short. Ten in
the morning. Noel Gallagher does interviews at 10 in
the morning? Yes, she said. He likes to get on with
And now this. Elvis Costello wants to do the interview
over breakfast. Breakfast! As those nice young men in
the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club sang recently:
"Whatever happened to my rock'n'roll?" So, I'm gearing
myself up for the drive to Costello's Richmond hotel for our 8.30am
meeting when the man himself rings my mobile. Can I make it for eight
o'clock? Of course.
When I turn up, Costello doesn't even want to eat
breakfast. He had his earlier. "I've been up since 5.30,"
he says. (And he played a gig the night before.) Like I
said, it's a worrying trend. But then Costello loves
defying expectations, whether in his music - making
albums with the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter or
Burt Bacharach - or in person. The first rule of famous
people is that they're all smaller in person than you
think they are. Costello is bigger. This, and the sense of
certainty in his every statement, would make him an
intimidating companion, if it wasn't for the wit that
ripples through his conversation as readily as it does
through his songs. Costello's conversation is as finely
crafted as his lyrics, whether discussing the parlous
state of the record industry ("They've got it coming. It's
which dies first: the planet or the record industry?") or
which Rolling Stones tracks he prefers ("I always liked
their fey pop tunes - Jagger's 'I've got off with a
middle-class bird' songs").
We're here (only a few hundred yards from Jagger's
Richmond mansion, coincidentally) to discuss the new
"tour edition" of Costello's latest album, When I Was
Cruel. In an age when music is pigeonholed and
formatted more than ever before, Costello has worked
wonders in encouraging a large chunk of his audience
to follow him into a variety of different musical areas -
from country to classical to crooning - but for those
who waited patiently for the man to get back to bashing
out loud, angry rock songs on his guitar, When I Was
Cruel is the real deal. There are even two Attractions -
Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas - in the backing band.
From this purist point of view, When I was Cruel is the
latest in a line of brilliant rock albums that begins with
his first three records, My Aim Is True, This Year's Model
and Armed Forces - and also takes in Blood and
Chocolate and Brutal Youth. The new edition of the
album contains a bonus CD that features live versions
of songs from When I Was Cruel (and some older
favourites), taken from the current tour.
While most of Costello's contemporaries are preaching
to the converted, Costello continues to attract a new
audience. When I Was Cruel reached No 1 in the US
college radio charts. As a result, his live audience
contains a significant proportion of kids. "It's amazing
what a difference that makes," says Costello. "It's a
terrific injection of energy - and they don't feel they own
you, so they're a bit more open-minded. You get this
curious thing where the whole family comes along, and
you get the funny feeling the parents are saying: 'Well,
you must see this before you can't see it any more.' Not
that I'm thinking of going anywhere ..."
The rage that fuelled his classic early albums is
referred to in the title track of the new record, which
describes the dreadful people at some horrendous
social function. But Costello refrains from sticking the
lyrical knife all the way in. "It was so much easier," he
sings, "when I was cruel."
"You're more inclined to be tolerant as you get older," he
explains. "You see the human frailties. And you have to
keep reminding yourself that, yes, they are as wretched
as your judgmental, younger self thought they were.
When you're young, you can demonise people easily. I
look at some of the brutality of the language in some of
the early songs - probably overdoing it just to make a
point, and to make a name for myself."
Costello's back catalogue is currently being reissued,
and he has written some of the liner notes himself.
Originally, journalists were commissioned to supply
them, but Costello found them too fawning. Hardly
surprising, you might think, when the latest batch
includes This Year's Model and Armed Forces. "No,"
says Costello. "I couldn't let them publish them. There
was no suggestion of fallibility in them. Records are
bound to be flawed. We live in an everything's fabulous,
all the time, 24 hours of the day world, which is why I
wrote that song Episode of Blonde," he continues,
referring to another track on When I Was Cruel.
"Everything's got to be as blonde as it can be, whether
you want it to be or not. Blonde is a synonym for any
number of qualities that we're told are essential. But it's
not a moral crusade. There's a sense of humour in
these songs. There's a sense of humour in some of the
early songs, too, but the fury of the sound meant people
didn't always notice it." Costello opens his mouth and
points to the gap between his front teeth. "It's this. It's
this. It always sounds like I'm spitting. People jump out
of their skins when I speak. They think I'm angry all the
time, but I'm just saying something. This per-cussive
way of speaking makes everything sound angry."
There's still plenty of anger on the new album, still
plenty of fury in the sound. Costello attributes the
evident passion to two factors. First, he'd been playing
so many different types of music recently that he was
genuinely enthused to strap an electric guitar back on.
And second, he approached the writing for the songs in
an entirely new way: he wrote the songs using cheap
drum machines, not a guitar. "These songs were
written very much rhythm first, then words, then melody
and harmony. A lot of these songs don't have any
harmony on them to speak of, because I was kind of up
to here with harmony from working with Burt
His plans changed when Robert Wyatt - who was
curating Meltdown - asked Costello to play, and, soon
afterwards, Bob Dylan asked him to play a support slot.
With two reasons to put a band together, Costello
thought he might as well bring the musicians back to
the studio to work on his new songs. The result is an
album that sounds, on the surface, reminiscent of
Costello's early work, but has underneath a layer of
surprising rhythms and textures that probably owe as
much to hip-hop as they do to rock. "The last thing you
want to do is to self-consciously try to make a hip
record," he says. "But I like what I hear in hip-hop and
R&B more than what I hear in rock. I cannot abide the
straight, square rock beat. Give me anything that's off
kilter - Turkish music, reggae, New Orleans."
The fact that Costello's musical tastes are off kilter is
clearly proven by his discography. But Costello has no
time at all for those who consider albums made with
the Brodsky Quartet or Burt Bacharach to be annoying
sidetracks from what he should really be doing. "I can
see the value - and I don't care if anyone else doesn't
like it. Know why I'm doing it? Because I f***ing can.
Somebody asked me to and I enjoy it. I'm fed up with
apologising for it."
It's news to me that Costello has ever apologised for
his musical adventurousness. "No, I haven't. But I'm fed
up of people expecting me to. People think music has to
be instant payoff - has to tell you everything about itself
in three minutes. But it doesn't work like that. It can be
like waiting for a flower to bloom. The song that's a hit
from an album isn't the best song - it's just the one
that's the most maddening."
Based on this definition - that maddening means
catchy - When I Was Cruel offers a pretty good mix of
songs: some of them blooming flowers, others