Pic by Lens O'Toole
Streaming a track at a time or 180g vinyl? Singles or box sets? CDs or livestreaming from your living room in your pyjamas? Whatever, says Elvis Costello.
Yes, he has Hey Clockface, a new album available digitally and, if the national/international post finally gets its act together, physically, right now.(Read my review here) It is also true that a new box set built around his 1979 album, Armed Forces, is on its way, seemingly packaged with everything your house might need by way of actual hold-in-your-hand product, as he explained yesterday in part two of this interview.
However, Costello declares that the way people consume music doesn’t consume him anywhere near as much as it does label types and journalists.
“We’ve got this time to think and do something different. The world we live in now, where everything is in a constant flow or stream, the record is a wonderful thing to hold in your hand, but it isn’t the last word on how music is heard, by any means,” he says from his Canadian home, a cabin on the west coast which has been his family’s Covid 19 bolthole.
“I actually don’t have a problem with that. I reserve the right to make the record and sequence of the way I believe it should be, but I accept that people are liable to happen upon the music you make in all sorts of different ways. It’s really like radio with all the unpleasant talking taken out, if you think about. I don’t think it’s anything to get upset about.”
I tell him I feel that shuffle mode is the devil’s work and he concedes that using it is in one way “arguing with the artist”. However, “I do love a chance encounter”.
“I used to love mixed tapes. I used to make them all the time and cassettes were a great way to listen, particularly for the travelling musician. Before I left [on a tour] I spent a couple of weeks doing mixed tapes to keep me sane on the road, keep me out of trouble, and give me something to listen to in my room.
“Of course I’d always end up buying a suitcase full of records in secondhand shops, but I’d make a mixed tape of those.”
We’ve found ourselves back in the past during this long conversation because as much as Hey Clockface is stylistically and sonically impossible to pin down, and a song such as We’re All Cowards Now is something like his mid-80s persona as The Imposter projected into an orchestrated future, that song reminds us that the same issues which occupied him 30-plus years ago – the turning of culture into pornography of various sorts; the subversion or corruption of thought and independence – remain.
While only occasionally an overtly political writer, We’re All Cowards Now is a song he could have written at the height of Thatcher and Reagan, of “there is no society” and “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”, of riots over race and menacing right wing thugs. A time that embodied the notion of being ruled by those knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.
“There are some things that are clearly the same,” Costello says. “Somebody showed me a picture the other day of Brockwell Park [in Brixton], a big Rock Against Racism gig that we were on in ‘78. There was 100,000 people, and that’s a lot of people. Okay, maybe they just turned up to see good music but I think they turned up to show that they didn’t want [the world] to go that way, and there was the anti-Nazi movement with people sounding the alarm about the rise of the National Front and such things. I had that in some of my songs, some alarm bells sounding.
“We’re All Cowards Now is an accusatory song but it says we, not you’re all cowards now. That quickness to anger, that willingness to go to rage ahead of reason, and I include myself in every time, I think you’ve got to, but it does start with the idea that if you put down the gun, everything would be great, and it carries on to imagining a near future. I think in a sort of way the song is almost related to the idea of singing Peace, Love & Understanding for 40 years and still having need of singing it. Or for that matter singing [the Falklands War-referencing], Shipbuilding, for 40 years.”
Not coincidentally, in the run up to the rather consequential American election, as much as his then-impending album and box set, Costello engaged in some social media social activism which was not mere get out the vote business, or vote for my preferred candidate business. Instead it looked to remind us that some things have not really changed at all.
“I was thinking what would be something that people - some, not everybody obviously - might find something in,” he says. “And I thought of what I’m calling an installation, like you might do in an art gallery.“
In this “gallery” he posted an excerpt of one of his songs each day for 50 days, until early this month, with a purpose behind them that is even closer to home than the Irish troubles memorably captured in Armed Force’s best-known song, Oliver’s Army.
“Every one of the stanzas that I chose underlined the fact I felt what you just said, that everything that’s been said about ‘this is the biggest crisis that we’ve ever had, this is the worst time, it’s never been this bad’, well, here are some songs that will tell you that’s not true because these things are all in play,” Costello says. “All the things you say we need an accounting now about, justice about this and change there, we needed it last year as well. We needed it 10 years ago, we needed it 40 years ago, we needed it 60 years ago.
“I’m sitting in the evening with my 13-year-old boys discussing events that I saw at their age on the BBC. There would be a report about some of the outrages of the civil rights era and I’m discussing lynching with 13-year-old boys. I’m not going to speak for what they say, because they see things with remarkable clarity. Inevitably they are more exposed to the horrors of the world than I would have been seeing only two news bulletins a day while they are bombarded with information.”
So what did he hope to achieve? Is it something we could take to heart now, with the presidential election – though not necessarily the fight it represented – over?
“I wrote, in setting this thing up, and it’s a serious thought, these excerpts of songs that I’m putting up every day and highlighting the song and giving you a link to hear the music, is to console or infuriate. It’s got to be one of them; there isn’t a sort of placid, complacent option because all the hatred that is in the air, all of the injustices that we know of were there,” he says.
“It requires consultation, not compromise, between people who are opposed, because there are a lot of people who think we should not be united because they can take advantage of that division. That’s all I’ve ever known my whole life: my family came out of that kind of division. It’s not left and right, it’s not even that. If you can’t face that conundrum, then that is cowardice.”
Does that include hope though?
“The only thing that you can say about the wicked old men all over the world, not just the ones that are the most vulgar and most attention grabbing, is that they will be dead one day and no one will even mourn them. There will be nothing lasting, probably not even a statue. Check out what happened to Mussolini.”
Hey Clockface is out now.
The Complete Armed Forces box set is out today.