ELVIS COSTELLO HAS TAKEN A DIVERSION, a circuitous one it turns out. Our job? To hang on in there because it all does come home eventually.
He was already wound up to talk about two years where, lockdown be damned, he’s released almost half a dozen projects – including a box set that would set back utter nutjob devotees with more money than sense (or as we know ourselves …fans) upwards of $400 for new/old/unseen/unheard parts around 1979’s Armed Forces album – and the impending unveiling tomorrow of a new, raucous rock ‘n’ roll record with his band The Imposters.
(Yes, if you’re wondering, he is still working on a stage musical with Burt Bacharach, partially sprung from their 1998 collaboration, Painted From Memory. And no, that is not the only stage musical on his agenda. Do you get the feeling he likes being busy?)
This new record, The Boy Named If, will thrill those listeners who yearn for the sound, if not necessarily the fury, of “classic period” Costello, the years when he and his then-band, The Attractions (essentially The Imposters of drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard maven, Steve Nieve, with original bassplayer Bruce Thomas in the spot held for 20 years now by Davey Faragher) imposed themselves on pop, rock, soul, country and whatever else took Costello’s fancy.
Alongside some tender songs, the new record will also please those who enjoy the richly drawn characterisations that define Costello in the second half of his career as much as the wordplay that has always been his signature. And it might surprise both crowds with its thematic continuity – what? A concept album? More about that in part two tomorrow.
On the way to all this though, the 67-year-old London-born, Liverpool-launched, Irish/Englishman from the west coast of Canada is thrown a bone about the ubiquitous Zoom interview meaning having more face-to-face encounters with the filth of the media than he might had expected by this stage of his career.
That’s enough of a spark, and away we go on a ride of thin records, fat details, a reminiscence of the “magic” Accutrac record player of the late ‘70s which claimed it could be computer programmed to select a particular track automatically, allowing you to theoretically play the record in the order you wanted (“Of course it was completely unreliable, and would just drop and skate across the record and scratch the record.”), falling for a newly discovered favourite, and falling in love over again with his oldest, closest collaborator.
“Everything in the world of recorded music is about reaching an agreement between what you want to do and what the new possibility is,” Costello says. “I was talking to someone the other day when I mentioned how I used to really love doing demos on a four-track cassette and it was only when I said it out loud that I thought, how do we get four tracks on this little, tiny sliver of tape.
"And of course, what I liked about it was the fact that the sound was very compressed, which is the same reason that I think that a couple of my early records are mastered to quarter inch, rather than half inch tape, because we liked that sound.”
That compressed sound of his early records has clearly never left him. One of the first things you’ll notice about The Boy Named If is its sharp, in-your-face, trebly sound, rising up behind outright pop melodies. Then comes the energy and spark, not just in the existing band but in one cameo from New Jersey singer, Nicole Atkins – introduced to Costello by his “brother”, T-Bone Burnett, when she sang as part of a live musical accompaniment for the 50th anniversary screening of Easy Rider, “and I thought, who is that? How have I never heard that singer before?” – on the song My Most Beautiful Mistake. Her presence proves quite inspired as she offers gutsiness and theatricality that leans ‘70s Italian as much as the Jersey shore.
The next thing you might notice is, amongst this guitar-led rock sound, a torrent of those trademark, sometimes inexplicable keyboard sounds of “Professor” Steve Nieve: the Armed Forces electric piano, the harsher organ in What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and vamping Farfisa-like one in Mistook Me For A Friend; the elegant piano in Paint The Red Rose Blue, and the saloon piano in The Man You Love To Hate.
This is a sonically vigorous record.
“Maybe because I spoke first, as it were, when we found ourselves making a record almost out of nowhere,” explains Costello. “It was really Pete Thomas’ complaint after a couple of months after we came back from England [in 2020], curtailing a tour because things were so uncertain and unstable. I did, as you know, manage to complete a record in those circumstances, Hey Clockface, and we were about to release Spanish Model [a Spanish language re-interpretation by a bevy of new vocalists of his 1978 breakthrough, This Year’s Model] which we had been working on for two years, so we had two finished records by the [northern] summer of last year.
Meanwhile Sebastian [Krys, producer] was mixing live material for the Armed Forces box set, which was also scheduled. So we had all these records and nowhere to put them.
“That’s when Pete said ‘I’ve played through everything in my record collection’. He plays every day, he has his Gretsch kit in the basement and he would want to be ready to go as soon as we got the word that we could return to the stage. [He said] ‘I’ve played through all the Beatles catalogue, all our records, Motown, Stax, everything, I’m fed up, I can’t go back through it all.’ So I said, what about this song? And I sent him – I can’t even remember which one it was – what you might have called a demo: it was just me singing the song at the top of my voice and I don’t even think I had two tracks. It was just voice and guitar onto this microphone.”
The song sent on spec, went down a treat.
“I sent it to him and an hour later it came back with drums on it. Then it was, ah, I see, okay, maybe the electric guitar can go like this, and then Pete changed one part of the song with a different pattern, and I sent it to Davey [Farragher] and then sent it to Steve. I didn’t hear from him for a little bit and then a days later he said ‘what am I supposed to do, you’ve already finished it’. I said, no not really, I know it’s a guitar song but you’re going to find all sorts of things to play.”
Was he at all concerned when Nieve, who lives and works in Paris with his writer/filmmaker/psychoanalyst wife, Muriel Téodori, hesitated?
“Maybe it’s a little bit different because he’s used to leading: he is the lead voice in so many of the arrangements. But as you commented, he plays some very ingenious things in and around things that I had already played,” says Costello. “Two of the things I’d already played were guitar solos, which is two more than I’d played on my other records, but both came as part of the story.
“Magnificent Hurt, you don’t have to read the lyric very hard to say well that’s that strong desire you have that gets to the point that it causes you physical pain, the thrill of it as much as the danger of it, the implication of it. You couldn’t really play a pretty guitar solo off that idea, it had to be crooked, it had to be dissonant. Then I heard what Steve played inside the notes that I was playing, which were already pretty wayward, and that was good. We were listening to one another, and that’s when good stuff happens.”
The guitarist in the songwriter swells up to meet the moment, the man who once credited himself on a record as Little Hands Of Concrete, the nickname given him by his early producer, Nick Lowe, maybe having a late-in-life six-string epiphany.
“You mentioned What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, both Davey and Steve kind of gave the bridge tremendous size because of the things they played and I made the decision to do something very unusual for me,” he says. “Most of the single line guitar playing on all of my records are motifs, they are part of the arrangement. The most obvious example being the opening of Watching The Detectives. That’s not a guitar solo as such, it’s not an improvised or lead solo, it’s a structural motif that could have been a horn part.
“But the guitar break on What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love is expressive, it’s actually a response to the words and where the words lay off it goes that little bit further with the guitar. I’ve done that in concert but I haven’t done it on record, ever.”
Lest this sound like an introductory line for Guitar World magazine, there is a noticeable uptick in excitement in Costello’s voice as he goes on, returning to core Attractions/Imposters.
“I got to watch Steve overdub those pianos, keyboards. Occasionally we’d use a video link so we could talk about the arrangement, but most of the time we’d leave each other alone and do everything on instinct. One day we got on, me and Sebastian, and watched Steve for two hours, and there is a funny thing: 45 years we’ve played together on and off and that’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to him when he’s been working on something spontaneous. Onstage I’ve got my back to him most of the time, and in the studio I’m across the room, usually in some sort of vocal booth. Even when I’m in the studio listening to him over dub, I’m still not watching his hands.
“But suddenly we’ve got a camera on the end of the keyboard and I am going, is he really going to play that? It was so crazy, but of course I’d learned to trust that what sounds completely illogical, two minutes later is something you can’t live without because the two parts that he’d imagined in his head fitted together. That’s why he is who he is.”
TOMORROW: in part two of this interview, Elvis Costello talks unlikely concepts, uncertain sex, and going to a place he thinks no one has been before in a song.
The Boy Named If is out January 14. Main photo by Mark Seliger.