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ELVIS COSTELLO, 40 YEARS AND COUNTING: WIND BACK WEDNESDAY


It is 40 years since Elvis Costello released his first album, My Aim Is True. It did well, he did well, and he’s done a bit since then. He’s talked to me a few times in those four decades too. Wind Back Wednesday alights at 2002 as album #19 arrived and another tour was imminent.

WHEN HE WAS CRUEL

There's a certain Elvis Costello fan who recently bought his fourth copy of Costello's second album 1978's This Year's Model. He had it on vinyl; bought it on CD ages ago, bought the reissued CD (with seven extra tracks) a few years back and now has the second reissued version, which comes with an extra CD of extra material.

Now this fan, who has more than 80 Costello albums on vinyl and CD, legitimate and bootleg, is more than somewhat tragic. But even more appalling is that he isn't the slightest bit embarrassed.

And nor for that matter is Elvis Costello, who has this year also released his 19th album, When I Was Cruel.

"Well I'm actually in the furniture business," Costello cackles. "I'm the evil genius of the CD trade and CD shelving is where I make my money."

Of course, shame is irrelevant now. The thing is that given it is 25 years since Declan MacManus changed his name to Elvis Costello and released his first album, My Aim Is True, his fans not only can afford to indulge in reissues (and sell out three Enmore Theatre shows next month) but they're the kind who want to hear the four-track demos Costello recorded before each album; the kind who want to read his detailed liner notes with their flashes of wit and matching seriousness about the process.

The kind in fact who are hoping that Costello releases the fabled demos of songs he and wife Caitlin wrote over one weekend for an album by '80s popstar/'90s nobody Wendy James.

"That's a fun kind of record really," Costello says of the James demo. "It was written very, very quickly as you know and my wife and I just wrote those songs on a weekend and recorded them with [long-time Costello drummer] Pete Thomas. Actually, not that dissimilarly to some of the tracks on this new record: Pete and I in the studio together.

"When you hear Dissolve [from When I Was Cruel] it sounds like a rock and roll band playing together but sometimes you get a better feel when it's just two of you. For certain types of song anyway, certainly something like that which is sort of stupid and it's supposed to be stupid, it's intentionally stupid."

"Intentionally stupid"? This may be hard to believe for those who always have pegged the Dublin-resident Costello as wordy and at least as much brain as heart.

"Rock and roll band"? This may be almost as bizarre to those who have watched Costello spend the past 10 years in (usually fascinating) avenues such as his Grammy-winning ballad-heavy collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory; an album of reworked pop songs with Swedish soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter; a song-cycle for voice and strings with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters; and both classical commissions for symphony orchestras and jazz-inspired music for ballet companies.

But When I Was Cruel is undoubtedly a rock and roll record. Spiked with occasional odd instruments, cheap beat boxes, quirky time changes, and even a sampled vocal, sure, but backed by two-thirds of his original band, the Attractions (Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve are joined by new bassplayer Davey Farragher) it is noisy, guitar-laden and spitting out the kind of lyrical barbs that almost define Costello's work for most people.

For the first time in years, the 47-year-old Costello has fired up rhythm and riffs and rawness.

"Certainly, the way they've recorded my voice, that's very much how it sounds in the room," he says of this rawness. "I've seen it written that my voice is deliberately distorted on the record, and it isn't. There's no distortion added to this record at all. When I sing, that's the way I sound.

“People have got used to things with other singers, and I've been singing in a much more gentle manner, [using] the vibrato in my voice to soften the tone. "So in that sense it's fundamental, primal to me, Just the fact that the guitar is so more prominent is unlike any other album I've made."

Speaking of guitars, Costello makes a point of identifying every one he plays on the album and in interviews he's been quick to stress the role individual guitars played in not only the sound of the record but the way he approached writing the songs.

For a man who claims no virtuosity, and indeed once identified himself on an album as playing with "little hands of concrete", it's one of the many small oddities of When I Was Cruel.

Which makes it harder to understand that so many of the early reviews and press coverage of When I Was Cruel featured the predictable cheers from those who celebrated what they saw as Costello giving up the "dabbling" of his non-rock work and "going back to being Elvis Costello" as if those two were mutually exclusive.

It's a type of simplistic, reductive thinking that carries little weight with Costello, who is typically loquacious and acidly polite on the topic.

"Those who are doing this are speaking from a position of deep conservatism about music which is a sad thing to say: that rock and roll has become a conservative force in music," he sighs. "Rock and roll was a revolutionary thing; now it's the conservative status quo in the opinion of people who speak like that.

“And their attempt to patronise you for doing these things is disappointing but you can't be too aggravated because you shouldn't mock the ignorant. It is just ignorance to say that that is dabbling, because it fails to understand the value of it."

It's ignorance and fear, isn't it? People scared of what they don't immediately understand.

"It's fear and posturing as well, which is when it is objectionable," Costello says with a bit more venom. "What I want to focus on is that the listeners are so much more varied in their response. There are people who have no problem at all listening to both The Juliet Letters and When I Was Cruel. And there are some people who only listen to the first few records, who like Blood And Chocolate and might like this record. And there are people, who by virtue of just being younger, don't know any record other than She [which he recorded for the soundtrack to Notting Hill and became a huge hit internationally, including in Brazil of all places].

"Again, when people are cautious, conservative, you have to have sympathy for their position because it's founded sometimes on a lack of ability to experience a broader, rich picture of music. If we listen with greater openness that might happen; but I won't hold my breath for that."

He points out that the albums which his critics like to identify as the most "Costello", such as This Year's Model and Blood And Chocolate were not big sellers, while Spike, often labelled one of his oddest, and Painted From Memory were among the biggest albums of his career.

"So whenever I'm the most "me" that they're saying I am they never really sell," he laughs. "You know what's my biggest selling record? She. And that's the least "me" record that I've ever made. There's your theory right there. On the other hand, When I Was Cruel just went into the American charts at number 20, the highest entry we've ever made, so who knows maybe this will confound that theory."

And one final word for those who haven't got the point yet.

"There is more than one way to tell something that you obviously know as a writer," Costello says. "There is more than one way to use words; they don't always have to reveal themselves completely. This is not a mistake; this is deliberate.

“In the same way that you can fling paint onto canvas and make it give the impression of something or you can finely paint it with two or three strands of horsehair until it builds up to an absolute likeness. Which is the better painting? There is no comparison."

#WindBackWednesday

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