Photo by James O'Mara
In Friday’s first instalment (HERE), Elvis Costello got the C word off the table as he explained some of the personal circumstances around the recording of his first album in some years, Look Now (listen HERE). Basically, “I’m not dead yet. Not even close.”
But what were the musical drivers for a return to the studios? And why was there no question that it would be with his band The Imposters?
Here he is with a new record. the man who said he wouldn’t do that again, preferring to be a troubadour making his money on the live circuit, including solo shows that mixed some theatre with his rock’n’roll, as a kind of postscript to the release of his highly readable and often revelatory memoir, Unfinished Music & Disappearing Ink.
This is how Billboard saw it when reviewing one of the Detour tour shows in 2016. “Although it might have seemed odd to have old black-and-white photos of his ancestors alternating with lurid paperback covers and glamour shots of femmes fatale like Gloria Grahame, that slideshow provided an overture for the themes he’d consistently return to over the subsequent 140 minutes: family, sex, and war… and various combinations thereof.”
That was then, now it’s welcome back to making records Elvis Costello.
“I’m only grateful for the opportunity. I think it’s good to maybe not feel you have either an obligation or entitlement to recording,” he says. “And unhooking the shows from the record releases certainly freed me to create much wider presentations over the last 10 years or so.
“It hasn’t just been turning up with whatever songs most recently escaped the record company. We were down [in Australia] with The Spectacular Spinning Song Book tour, the Detour shows took me all over the place though that didn’t make it to Australia and I was always said about that because I thought the storytelling aspect would have found an audience there.
“Then last year I went out for a little while looking at the songs from [the 1982 masterpiece made with his original band, The Attractions] Imperial Bedroom, and that’s probably, most of all, that led me to the conclusion that it was time for this band to record. It was specifically this band that I wanted to capture and give them something new to deal with.”
Though as he admits, when he says “new”, it’s not exactly accurate.
“Really it’s something I’ve thought about doing for 20 years but never had the opportunity to do a record like this, with this kind of scope,” Costello says. “I suppose being patient about a few of the songs that I’ve held back, only gave them better company with songs I wrote in the last year or so.”
So here we are, five years since his last release, an electronic/hip hop/rock melange with Atlanta’s eclectic ensemble The Roots, Wise Up Ghost, and ten years since Momofuku, his last pop/rock set with The Imposters, and Look Now is the album he had to make: lush, romantic, vibrant and hooked on tunes.
Not just that, but the album he had to make with this band: Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums and Davey Faragher on bass, who, like their frontman and main man, sound as fresh and as engaged as a bunch of kids making their first album. And in some ways they were.
“I don’t think the band have ever sounded better,” says Costello. “This is 16 years this band has played together, but Pete and Steve and I of course have worked on and off for 40. If we didn’t know something by now there’d be something badly wrong.
“But in this case we talked about the songs probably more than we’ve done in the past so that when we got to the red light coming on in the studio we didn’t feel any inhibitions, we were confident we knew how it went. So then it was a pleasure to play it and get the best performance, the most vivid performances we could get.”
Rather than recording the vocals early and building the songs around that, as he’d done for most of his 40-year career, this time Costello left it mostly to the end, sensing that “these songs particularly seem to want to have something examined ahead of time”, not least in their echoes of two of his most orchestrated records, Imperial Bedroom and Painted From Memory.
“Most curiously for me, having known everybody for a while, we’ve all been through a number of things in our own lives and we’ve played with other people, I found Pete Thomas – and drummers are normally noted for saying ‘when do I get to hit things?’ - actually asking me about the details in the lyrics. More than he’d ever done before,” recalls Costello. “He was the one focused on the emotional details in the lyric and although we’ve obviously always shared those things I’ve never known him like this. And I thought that this is maybe the time that we’re starting to feel those things and not be afraid to say it out loud.”
Addressing the topics and the emotions in the rehearsal room took pressure off them in the studio “so I knew where the spaces would be, and that way we didn’t fill all available space and were playing in support of one another rather than a contest with one another”, which became an important element.
“It isn’t that sort of fuzzy rock ‘n’ roll thing with the guitars and the drums turned up super loud; it’s a different kind of music than that; it’s a bit more swinging, and at times a lot of restraint to it because that’s the way the song had come through,” Costello says. “Especially when we had Burt Bacharach [who co-wrote two of the songs] come in, because then you are responding to his touch at the piano and that’s a different thing again to Steve at the piano.
“I’m really proud of the way everybody kind of hit the mark, whether it was something exuberant like Under Lime or Mr & Mrs Hush, or something very controlled like the mood of Photographs Can Lie. I couldn’t have imagined us doing those 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30, because we wouldn’t have got it.”
Tomorrow, Elvis Costello explains where some of these new songs came from – including co-writers Carole King and Burt Bacharach - and why being knocked back by the nabobs of Broadway helped give Look Now a core.
And on Wednesday, it’s a matter of the Dorsey brothers, a new project for the stage, and vermin - and no that’s not a reference to Costello’s view of much of the media.
Look Now is out now.