He’s currently taking some time off to recover from surgery for cancer but Elvis Costello will still likely take that time to write a song or twelve. Which is fine with some of us who have been following the man for 40 or so years – more please! Wind Back Wednesday takes a spin, at both 33 and 45rpm, to 2003 when an album of songs about love was definitely, positively, absolutely not about him, ok?
NO BLOOD ON THESE TRACKS, NO BLUE IN THIS TALE
Elvis Costello last year ended a 16-year relationship with singer and songwriter Caitlin O’Riordan and later in the year began a surprising new one with jazz singer Dianna Krall that, according to the putative father in law, is set for marriage.
Elvis Costello has a new album out on Monday which is packed with songs about the giddy euphoria of falling in love anew. Shifting ground once again after last year’s more rock-influenced album When I Was Cruel, musically it harks back to the great American songbook tradition of Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Mercer and Porter – all soft corners and softer refrains.
Lyrically it appears to be an album structured along the lines of Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal: beginning with an end (You Left Me In The Dark) and ending with a declaration of hope at a beginning (I’m In The Mood Again).
Yet Elvis Costello does not want us to see any great significance in this. Does not want us to assume that the songs on this album, North, are necessarily related to his life.
“Obviously any close identification of these songs with me is less important than the variety of identifications that occur [in listeners],” the 49-year-old Costello says from his Dublin office. “It’s irrelevant really whether they’re about my life or not. It’s irrelevant to the listening pleasure unless all you want to be is a voyeur.”
Which we all are to a certain extent as music fans surely?
“Yes, but it’s an unsatisfactory investigation and a fruitless one if people ask me.”
He laughs as he says this but there’s no questioning the steel. In 26 years since his twitchy and wordy 1977 debut (the country/rock rather than punk influenced album My Aim Is True), Elvis Costello has never discussed his private life and has consistently refuted personal connections in his lyrics.
Sure the lyrics on North are the most direct he’s ever written, the most unabashed in their emotional celebration with lines such as “These few lines I’ll devote/To a marvellous girl covered up with my coat/Pull it up to your chin/I’ll hold you until the day will begin”.
Sure they were written in a feverish burst in the weeks and months after he met Krall in Australia last year while they were both on tour (he and O’Riordan attended her Opera House concert). But he isn’t about to change now.
Still, he knows terrain will be scanned and matters assumed by fans, reviewers and the curious. What Costello wouldn’t give for a public and critical mood more in tune with the musical era upon which North draws.
A time when Lorenz Hart’s troubled and unrequited love for his songwriting partner Richard Rodgers emerged in songs that the general public digested happily as universal love songs.
“I can’t pretend I live in those times,” Costello says with only the barest hint of resignation. “I, as a songwriter, live in the post-Blood On The Tracks, post- Blue era – just to pick two albums from my record collection that meant a lot to me – that we assume a close identification between the singer and the songwriter.”
Maybe that’s wrong or maybe that, as it is with this record, is much less important than what we feel about those songs.
“There’s no doubt that a certain point around the time when Dylan switched from a fantastic and righteous commentary on events to the interior life …there’s a shift. [The shift was] from people writing lyrics of romantic convention, which might of course have been informed by very personal experiences - and certainly were in the case of Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart and people like that - to naked rambling at times. Some of it very uninteresting and unedifying rambling.”
I put it to Costello that when I first heard the songs of Lorenz Hart I knew nothing of his story and responded to the songs on one level but when I learnt what some of those lyrics signified I had a different and I would think no less valid appreciation of those songs.
“I think you can after the fact but what was most important was your first instinctive reaction to it, an emotional reaction that was not intellectual,” he argues. “For instance, I recently appeared in this biographical film of Cole Porter, singing Let’s Misbehave, which certainly stands for a lot of the life he lived.
“He lived a pretty wild life: although he was married he lived a pretty overt active gay life at a time when that would have been scandalous but because of his relatively privileged background he was able to do it. But he also wrote What Is This Thing Called Love? which I think once you know anything about him biographically starts to take on a more complex meaning.
“What Is This Thing Called Love? on the surface simply says what is this thing that’s taken me over [but] there’s another way you can read that song once you know of his double life. Does that make it a better song? Was that his intention or are we projecting that onto it because we know this stuff retrospectively? I don’t know. Of course it is interesting but it’s not what made me like the song originally.”
So if we can’t discuss who, can we say what the songs on North are about?
“Most acutely it’s about the acceptance of love, that feeling of bewilderment, that first realisation,” Costello says. “Not everybody starts from the position of absolute confidence and self-belief. You have doubt, bewilderment, embarrassment almost at being taken over by this feeling.
“The songs came to me fairly rapidly. They were written before I had time to consider whether I was writing in a different way or not. The next thing I knew I had five or six songs which were very different to the music I was currently playing as I wrote most of them while I was on the road last September [with his rock band The Imposters]. I was writing them after the shows, in the small hours, on the buses, while playing with the Impostors.
“It was such a different voice, musically and lyrically that the songs were taking shape before I had time to consider whether there was a choice about them.”
It sounds like it was an uncontrolled, almost overwhelming outpouring.
“Yes. Three songs in one evening. It can be quite upsetting to write like that you know. It can be quite disquieting when you have absolutely no choice: I must find a piano right away. It’s sort of a thrilling, exhilarating and slightly unnerving experience.”
It’s interesting that the language Costello uses to describe the response he had as this music was pouring out of him is similar to the language he used to describe the overwhelming nature of love arriving, being denied and then accepted.
It’s even more interesting that a man usually assumed to be more concerned with bitterness and revenge than love has made an album so full of love. Love to the point of euphoria.
He’s happy to wear that saying, “In the world that we live in I would rather sing of love and its transforming power than I would of anything else right now.”