Image: James O’Mara
Having taken us through health (his own) and heartiness (the refreshed band around him) so far from a frank and cheerful discussion, in part three of my interview with Elvis Costello we discover a treasure trove of material, and send our regards to Broadway.
On the new Elvis Costello and The Imposters album, Look Now, there is a song written with Carole King, one written for a 1996 movie loosely based on the life of Carole King (the too-little known Allison Anders film, Grace Of My Heart), and two written with a good friend and contemporary of Carole King, the silver haired genius, Burt Bacharach.
This may give you a hint of the direction taken on the album, which is usually as much guidance on a new record as you will get from Costello who once when asked what he meant by a lyric, answered that if he wanted to say it differently he’d have said it in the lyric.
However, in the lead-up to its release, the Anglo-Irishman had offered two explicit reference points for Look Now: the 1982 album Imperial Bedroom, made with his original band The Attractions (with bassplayer Bruce Thomas alongside current Imposters Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas) and producer Geoff Emerick, who had been the Beatles’ engineer; and 1998’s Painted From Memory, written with Bacharach after their partnership was sparked by writing God Give Me Strength for the Grace Of My Heart soundtrack.
Both albums are strong with orchestration, thick with words and leaning towards – though not exclusively working - the quieter end of his songwriting. What was he drawing from those two, to inform this one?
“I suppose one of the questions from the listeners I do have is where is the emphasis? Is it a narrative record? Is it all about rhythm? Is a lot of aggression to it? Is there some new experiment that he’s never taken on?,” says Costello. “I think of this as being pop music. I know that’s crazy because pop music suggests that it’s in the charts, but clearly, it’s not rock music, it’s not the rhythms of rock music; it’s more swinging than that.
“You know the cues that we were coming off, the sort of records that we were making reference to, but you are trying all the time, you are stumbling on towards something original with all of these things that turned you on in different ways. You can think ‘let’s do that thing like they did on that record’ but it’s going to come out of your own mouth differently, as it should.”
Costello’s connection to soul and rhythm and blues, as much as his affection for non-rock popular song, is evident on Look Now. Have a listen to Suspect My Tears, for example, and you can almost feel the crushed velvet suits and smooth moves of one of those Gamble & Huff productions for The Delfonics or the O’Jays.
And of course, Unwanted Number, originally performed by the fictional teen girl group, The Luminaries, in Grace Of My Heart, was written in the mould of the songs of The Crystals or The Shirelles.
But there’s more to the reference points than this, not least the Bacharach connection.
“I think by saying Imperial Bedroom I meant like a record that wasn’t limited in scope by what you could play with a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band,” says Costello. “And when I said Painted From Memory, well obviously there was the connection to the fact that some of these songs started life as extensions, literally, of Painted From Memory because a few of them came into existence in response to the idea of making a stage musical from that record, and then adding more songs to respond to the plot.”
That musical has been talked about for some time. And only talked about. What happened?
“Guess what? Broadway isn’t exactly beating a path to our door to hear 20 intense, melancholy, songs about romantic torment. There’s not a lot of opportunities for tap dancing or chorus girls or Spiderman on wires or anything. It would require Broadway to change its mind that the idea of musicals should be like Eugene O’Neill play,” he says with as much resignation as bitterness.
“And that’s not going to happen. So I said to Burt maybe the fastest way to get the songs in front of people is for me to record a few of them, and if somebody gets really bold and curious and wants to see if they can stage such a thing, well maybe that will happen. But I won’t be heartbroken if it doesn’t because we had the idea of writing together again, we wrote all these songs: 25 more songs than we had already written.”
Twenty five additional songs to the 12 they wrote for Painted …? That’s enough for a musical, sure, or two more albums. A feast.
“You are only hearing a few of them because I had other things I want to put alongside them that I thought framed them very well. We ended up with this huge stack of songs and I thought this alone is reason to record, even before you started to consider the fact that I’d had Suspect My Tears for 20 years, I’d had Unwanted Number and Burnt Sugar [written with Carole King] for 25, and they just never fitted into any record I’d made. I just had to be patient,” Costello says.
“We had 35 songs to consider and these were the ones came to the fore, by communal opinion. Each one [of the band] made a list of favourite songs and weirdly enough, it came mostly to the same 12.”
If this sounds like an embarrassment of riches it may also sound like a long time to wait to hear some of these songs. But timing – and mood, and luck, and people – still matter.
“I thought about doing a record of this sort of character, maybe with different component parts, 20 years ago and I didn’t do it because something else came along and it took me a way to do all these different things and all these adventures we’ve had,” says Costello.
“And then it seemed to be the moment.”
Tomorrow, concluding the interview, misunderstandings, mice and making heroes out of fall guys.
For further pleasures take a listen to this playlist deep diving into the Bacharach/David and Bacharach/Costello songbook.