(Photo by Dexter MacManus)
It’s evening in New York as Elvis Costello speaks, though with the blurred background he could be anywhere for this call, from his Vancouver home (where we spoke last, when he was holed up awaiting the apocalypse to pass. Ha! Pass.) to his childhood home in Liverpool or the Parisian studio where parts of 2020’s Hey Clockface were recorded.
But he’s not alone, the two young sons he shares with Diana Krall are about and they are no respecters of calls and questions. “There’s chaos behind me so I’ve got this background that looks like I’m disappearing into under this light,” Costello says, leaning back and forth in the Zoom blur.
Speaking of organised chaos and wilful boys, when this conversation left off yesterday Costello had been discussing the excitement involved in watching the Pancho to his Quixote, keyboard maestro Steve Nieve, create in front of him on camera.
Recording of the new Elvis Costello and the Imposters album, The Boy Named If, happened from a distance, in isolation, in a very 2020/2021 state of things. But what’s notable about it is how while the band members (Nieve, Costello, drummer Pete Thomas and bassplayer Davey Faragher) were in four different parts of the world, the producer, Sebastian Krys, somewhere else again, you could be fooled into thinking this was a live in the studio recording as it positively bristles with energy and connection between these musicians who have played with each for decades – in the case of Thomas and Nieve, just short of 50 years.
“It was, but it’s live in the moment that each of us was doing it,” says Costello. “You have to remember – and I keep telling myself this so don’t get too pleased with myself or ourselves that we did it like this – the proportion of records that are in some way assembled from a series of moments are probably at least equal, if not greater than those that were recorded with everyone playing along to the live vocal.
“You can count the records that are like that and they have a certain character, and some that you set out to record like that. It was only four elements, for the most part. Maybe a couple times we’d gone to a second guitar or another keyboard, or two or three part harmony: sometimes me with myself, sometimes Davey and me, sometimes Davey, me and Sebastian.”
There was one addition to the cast of players – not including the live add-on of guitarist Charlie Sexton for extra six string oomph – and it was for a song that has its own cast and drama. And maybe even its own crime.
“I had this one song that was specifically a dialogue but I didn’t want to make it a duet, despite the fact that it was a dialogue between a man and woman. I thought it would be a bit too theatrical a duet,” Costello says of My Most Beautiful Mistake. “So I invited Nicole Atkins to sing with me , just to kinda give that little bit of a different personality to the lines in which the woman is speaking in the story, because it’s a narrative about a screenwriter who is seeking inspiration, writing a film script in the little cantina. The woman serving him dinner, he gets the idea that she is his inspiration, and of course her reaction is yeah, I’ve heard that one before.
“And that is just enough of a set up for the listener to maybe make their own conclusion whether that’s a mystery story where some sort of crime is about to be committed, or whether it’s all actually a film that they are appearing in. I leave it to you to decide.”
Having expressed a preference for the album to be played in sequence, giving the record the full title of The Boy Named If (And Other Children’s Stories), and offering it in various forms including a hardback “storybook” edition, with lyrics accompanied by illustrations from Costello’s visual art alter ego, Eamon Singer, this sounds a lot like a – dare we say it? – concept album. Heavens.
“I didn’t set out to write this concept album, it’s not Jethro Tull or Yes – I never listen to that music so I don’t know what’s on those albums – but obviously your mind goes away on certain thoughts from time to time in a different conclusion comes out,” says the man who is definitely not standing on one leg playing a flute. “It’s not like I’ve never sung about some of these ideas, but this is the way I’m feeling about them now. They were written sufficiently close together so that some of them kind of joined up in some way that I didn’t contrive. Once we’d recorded them I thought, hang on a second this actually belongs with this, but mustn’t come before that.”
Normally I’m wary of imposing themes on Costello albums in conversation with him: that is tantamount to throwing red meat at a hungry, grouchy lion, even, or maybe especially, when it feels screamingly obvious such as the album North (written in the wake of falling in love with Krall) which seemingly chronicles a developing love affair from attraction to connection to the walk home in a morning-after-glow.
But this time he’s put one there himself, a transition from childhood to adulthood, a moment of our lives where the ground shifts without warning. Settle in for the explanation.
“I think The Boy Named If, obviously the ‘If’ is the imaginary friend, which is a charming, endearing device by which children might live in fantasy and sometimes pass blame for small indiscretions. That’s much less endearing when you are an adult and you are not taking responsibility for bad behaviour and you’re still trying to imply a sort of other nature. Not a whole other personality, as in a mental disorder, but some sort of allowance that isn’t really charming at all; it’s actually just wilful,” Costello says.
“So, that was the start of it, then that connected at the very least with The Death Of Magic Thinking, which is three quick glimpses of a process I think you go through at around 13, which is when I remember it, where you really do leave for the last time a place of wonder and somewhat innocence. No matter what you know, what you’ve read, or suspect, you lose that unselfconscious ability to be able to stand on your head or dance or skip or invent fantastic things, draw things, because you are made to study algebra and are told the logic that you are going to require to be an adult, at the same time as your body is telling you that you’re supposed to want things that you don’t understand.
“There is a strange moment of vertigo that can occur, that is described in detail in the chorus. Somebody who has more knowledge of those impulses and desires can mess with you. Not in any kind of abusive way, just for the sheer mischief of a moment of power.”
Control and power and the imbalance of it?
“It’s not really about this big imbalance; it’s just something that I wanted to put in a song because I don’t think anyone has ever written about it. I’ve never read anything that’s like the lines of the chorus: ‘She took my hand and, in an experiment, put it where it shouldn’t be/Put it underneath her dress and waited to see/I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to say/it was just a game I guess, one I didn’t know how to play.’,” he says.
“There’s nothing seductive about that. It’s not a seduction, it’s not she’s a temptress, it’s not she’s so hot I can’t resist. There’s sadly lots of songs written from the perspective of women who have had some horrible experience of men’s abuse. It’s neither of those things. None of the songs on this record have a moralising point of view. Even the last song, Mr Crescent, which is about a disgraceful old scandal [where] he’s looking back on his life and crimes, and he is hiding somewhere away in exile, but he still longs for this woman. Even though he should be ashamed, because she was a novice he caused to betray her vows.”
He interrupts to ask me if I know what he means by a novice. Oh yes sir, a trainee nun. Once a Catholic …He chuckles. “You can hear the Catholic in a lot of this” and we share a moment of the ghosts of nuns/priests/incense/beatings past, before he continues.
“And the song Penelope Halfpenny is about a teacher who comes into life of these children and just by being something other than covered in chalk dust, being an actual person, fashionable, self-possessed and apparently totally bored with the idea of teaching people changes them. This was somebody I did know. I sort of loosely based it on somebody I think we had for one term, a supply teacher, and God forbid she finds out about this song and is embarrassed: she was quite young and I think what made her thrilling, and the way I’ve made her thrilling in the song, was not that she herself was so attractive, though I’m sure she was, but her demeanour and the implication that she came from a world that we would never be admitted to. Or at least not for a while.
“But it was exciting to imagine it was out there somewhere, and that was what drove everybody mad, that she seemed to not care about what we were about, which was reading this book. It was just something that had to be done and maybe should go off to a career in espionage or journalism or something, some other disreputable kind of job.”
Even casual Costello fans might recall one of his songs in the ‘something is happening to me and I don’t understand it’ genre, Mystery Dance, with its protagonist declaring “She thought that I knew, and I thought that she knew/So both of us were willing, but we didn't know how to do it.”
But another song that comes to mind is Jacques Brel’s Au Suivant, which Scott Walker recorded as Next, singing of a young soldier nervous in the line at a brothel for his first sexual encounter, the sergeant calling out “next!” as he stews in his ignorance and fear.
“That’s an adult though,” Costello says. “He is a young man, and innocent abroad, but he is still an adult, and it’s also a decadent scene, which this isn’t. I’m not picking a fight with anyone but I tried very hard not to write ‘… and the moral of the story is’ in the last line of the song. That’s why I didn’t want to conclude My Most Beautiful Mistake with you knowing if the flirtation that’s going on in the first verse ends in a crime, a work of art or the whole thing is taking place in the movie that they are actors in. I leave it up to the listener and I wanted that ambiguity, which is why I use that second voice to kind of make the perspective a little different.
“That’s something that I mightn’t have tried so much a few years ago, but we learned how to do it in a way that I think is coherent.”
The Boy Named If is out today.