Image: James O'Mara
“Every time I say I’m getting out of this,” Elvis Costello says ruefully, like a Mafia scion who had tried to go legit, “somebody kind of makes some sort of snare to get me back in.”
Why is the singer/songwriter, born Declan McManus but working under his nom-de-music since 1977, who has made himself homes over the years in London, Liverpool, Ireland, Canada and the United States, channelling his inner Michael Corleone?
Because this - the urgently named album, Look Now, which is released today - wasn’t supposed to happen ever again. Not just an Elvis Costello album, but one with his “beat group”, The Imposters.
Costello had said, over and over, with increasing stridency as his albums – of pop, jazz, rock, classical and seemingly, whatever else caught his ear - arrived in the early part of this century, that there was no point recording and releasing music any more.
The industry model was stuffed, the demand for recorded music was dying away, the critics were shouting into a vacuum (and he couldn’t care less what they said in any case so why would anyone else), and the only way any of this made sense as a writer and performer was to play live.
He’s started a musical with Burt Bacharach based on the songs they wrote for the album Painted From Memory, and is working on another, based on the stories of Budd Shulberg, called A Face In The Crowd. And there are commissions from orchestras and other artists, a young second family, with Diana Krall, and, well, enjoying life without questions.
Then there was the news a year ago that the then-63-year-old songwriter reportedly had cancer, had undergone an operation, was cancelling a tour.
You’d not have put the housekeeping money on another tour, let alone a record, would you?
In this four-part interview – continuing through next week - we’ll delve deeply into this rich, orchestrated, sometimes fizzing, often elegant new album. with its roots in now-classics of his career, Imperial Bedroom and Painted From Memory.
As well as the origins of songs a year or two old, and those going back 20 or 25 years and only now having a turn to shine, Costello will explain the ways the Imposters – Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher – found ways to refresh their approach, what compelled him to return to the studio, and why Broadway isn’t yet a home for “20 intense, melancholy, songs about romantic torment”.
But first though, the elephant in the room, though not the studio: what the excitable magazines like to call at the very least a cancer scare, if not a near death experience.
Except Costello isn’t having a bar of it, and his refusal to play that game is not for his sake he insists.
“The break was really to allow me to recover my energy and strength because I overcalculated my ability to recover from an operation. I was never at any time sick,” he says firmly. “That’s one of the ways that the retelling of things, particularly in the tabloid press in England, have rather twisted what I said. I never said I had cancer. I never said that I was in any way in any mortal danger.
“If I had not had had that operation, it is conceivable that I might develop something much more serious. But I think out of respect for my friends, really close friends that I’ve lost in the last couple of years, and friends that are presently engaged in really fighting as hard as they can against something which has come to them, I just can’t think of myself in that class. It would just feel melodramatic and disrespectful.”
So what happened last year when he was on the road? Overconfidence about his ability to regain his energy came home to roost, and with it came the unexpected - fear.
“I got out on the road I just couldn’t be certain of where my voice was headed. I couldn’t be certain that when I got to the middle of the show whether I was going take off, like I’m used to, or whether the energy was just going to leave me as it did on one occasion,” says Costello. “After I made the decision to stop, I played four more shows and they were all great, because I guess I lost a bit of the fear. There was definitely some trepidation, the biggest being things that I used to just take as second nature became calculations.”
His explanation for the break “was not taken at its word”, the internet amplified the stories and it “scared the hell out of most of my friends who I had not got around to telling” as he figured, quite reasonably, he’d rather not worry everybody.
“I was trying not to alarm my family. My mother is 91 and not in great health, my youngest sons are 11. My oldest son is a man but just as anxious about it. I didn’t want to amplify any of that anxiety,” he explains. “It was nobody’s business, it didn’t interrupt the work. I found out about it the day before we went in to cut the horns and strings, I had a couple of weeks to think about it, we went back in the studio, and I cut all the vocals for this record.
“Do I sound like I was sick? No, I sound fine. I never felt in the slightest bit under the weather. So I didn’t have this sudden risk of mortality the people romantically or fancifully imagine happened and thankfully I got to the other side of. As in many things I am extremely lucky and that’s it.”
Don’t go looking for clues in these songs were not just written about fictional characters but, as Costello said, were all but done when the news came. Maybe in the future?
“Maybe there’ll be a bunch of songs later on later on when the implication of it all [sinks in] and I suddenly have something to say on that topic, but right now I’m not placing anything down in song,” he says. “If there’s one thing that I’m proud of is the ability of myself and the band to create songs in which we stand in somebody else’s place for a moment and not just be ourselves.
“Doesn’t mean they are not real, that we don’t know them to be true; it’s taking away that little bit of selfish impulse to always speak of yourself but not be less real or less emotional or less personal, in a peculiar sort of way.”
The Elvis Costello Interview continues on Monday. Look Now is available now, on Concord Records.