When Elvis Costello was approached by fans during the mid-'80s, he would squelch their questions with a two-word conversation stopper: "I'm retired." He used this reply, he says, "because it was just easier than trying to explain what I was actually doing." Chuckling, he adds, "What a bastard I was."
Note Costello's use of the past tense. The Elvis who signed with Stiff Records in June 1976 and promptly began spewing terse, angry words with music to match didn't pretend to be a charmer. He claimed to have called Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger" during a much-publicized 1979 bar argument with minor vocalist Bonnie Bramlett simply because he wanted to piss her off, and given his apparent love of provocation, this contention made sense. (He subsequently embarked on a subtle campaign to prove he wasn't a racist, producing a seminal disc by the Specials, a two-tone ska act, and assembling Get Happy!!, an LP heavily influenced by rhythm and blues.)
But today's Costello is a far cry from that young, snotty flamethrower. Although the subject he enjoys talking about most is himself (and he does so at great length), he's relentlessly polite, and while he doesn't pretend that the world is a perfect place, he prefers making the best of situations over railing against the injustice of it all. "There's no point in my trying to fight the massive tide that's going this way, in terms of the way the business is set up or the way things are valued," he says. "And I'm so lucky in other ways. It would just be bad manners to go on about that."
Of course, bad manners were a large part of Costello's appeal for the generation of alienated teens and twentysomethings who once hung on his every word: For them, he offered proof that cynical smarts and biting wit could be every bit as devastating as the knuckle sandwiches they ate far more often than they dished out. But while the '90s Elvis is no less clever than his vituperative predecessor, he has far different goals: He now is determined to establish himself as a singer-songwriter in the tradition of the Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building veterans he's long worshiped. Painted From Memory, a collaboration with vaunted pop composer Burt Bacharach that was put out last year by Mercury Records, is his most blatant attempt yet to earn a spot on the century's tunesmithing pantheon, and it's advanced the mission nicely. The symmetry of the Costello-Bacharach pairing thrilled a majority of scribes, prompting them to gush over a disc that is, for the most part, not terribly entertaining.
Kind reviews have provided sweet redemption for Costello, who's watched the public greet practically every album he's made this decade--even 1994's Brutal Youth, a reunion with his original band, the Attractions--with indifference. Perhaps that's why he's so grateful for the audience he has left. "I've never tried to stack all the people in the world head on head until I had a big mound of people supporting me," he insists. "A lot of people bring that kind of megalomaniacal attitude to their careers, but I don't share it. I try to remember that there once was a time when I couldn't conceive of selling a handful of records in a week. Back then, I didn't know if I would get past next week in my career, let alone five years or ten years or fifteen or twenty years, which is where I am now."
Such professionalism seems at odds with Costello's early persona, but it was there all along. The man once known exclusively as Declan MacManus was born into a musical family--his father, Ross, was a singer with an English orchestra--and he concedes that he always looked at performing as "vocational." After dabbling in country music with a combo called Flip City and recording some C&W demos that were broadcast on a London radio show called Honky Tonk, Declan quit a computer job he later skewered in the tune "Lipstick Vogue" in order to serve as a roadie for Brinsley Schwarz, a pub-rock band anchored by bassist Nick Lowe. Before long, Lowe touted MacManus to Stiff Records owner Jake Riviera, who swiftly signed him. Afterward, Riviera cooked up a new moniker for his latest discovery. "Costello" was an obvious choice (it was the maiden name of Declan's mother, and he'd occasionally used it as a pseudonym), but "Elvis" was an inspiration that gained just the right hint of punkiness when the corpulent crooner who'd made it famous left the building for the last time in 1977. That the handle contrasted sharply with MacManus's look--he suggested a horn-rims-wearing, 98-pound weakling with a score to settle--was an added bonus.
My Aim Is True, Costello's debut, which reached the States that same year under the auspices of Columbia Records, brought his alter ego to life with razor-edged ditties such as "Less Than Zero" and "I'm Not Angry." Yet more mainstream influences still lurked beneath the surface of his repertoire. The band that provided the music on Aim was an American country-rock act called Clover, whose harmonica player was Huey Lewis (Lewis doesn't appear on the platter), and the song he contributed to Live Stiffs, a compilation album from the period, was "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," a chestnut co-written by none other than Burt Bacharach. Most observers saw this choice as sardonic, but Costello knew better.
"I've loved Burt's music since I first heard it--when I was a completely uncritical child, really," he says. "And later on, as I understood more of what it was about and even something of the world it described, it became more and more interesting to me. Doing 'I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself' in 1977 was really at odds with the tenor of the times, but I never really paid attention to that idea. I'm aware that there obviously was a time when Burt was out of fashion, but it never really occurred to me. There are songs of his that aren't on the top of my charts, just as I'm sure that there are songs of mine that aren't at the top of his charts. But the ones I care for, I really care for like crazy."
The 1978 effort This Year's Model, his first album with the Attractions (bassist Bruce Thomas, drummer Pete Thomas, and keyboardist Steve Nieve, who's joining Elvis on his current tour), steered clear of ornate pop-craft; it's the most straightforward and aggressive offering in his catalog--and also his best. But impressive full-lengths like 1979's Armed Forces and 1981's Trust (not to mention the 1981 country tribute Almost Blue) sport several songs with elaborate structures and showy arrangements. These elements prefigured 1982's Imperial Bedroom, a complex and confident musical expedition produced by longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. The wonderful disc soon had zealous supporters likening Costello to Broadway greats.
This praise dangled before Costello the very sort of mainstream acceptance that he'd always secretly sought, but he was unable to capitalize on it. His next two records, 1983's Punch the Clock and 1984's Goodbye Cruel World, sought a middle ground between the intricacies of Bedroom and the greater commercial appeal of previous albums, yet they were unable to shatter the conception of him that had been cemented in the psyches of music buyers.
"When I started out, I thought that, if the songs could be famous rather than me being famous, it would be better," he says. "But it just didn't go that way with me, because of the visual image and the whole identification with the first batch of records. So I spent a long time trying to play with what those meanings were and trying to get away from this very, very narrow definition of who this guy was."
Hence he grew a beard, announced that he was Declan MacManus again and credited 1986's King of America to "The Costello Show" to underline that Elvis wasn't him, but a character. King, though, was a fairly dry, bookish disc that left most people cold, dooming a Costello/MacManus semi-switch that was too abstract to succeed anyway. The confusion was such that Costello rushed out Blood and Chocolate, a vigorous re-embracing of his late-'70s style.
Unfortunately, Blood was no blockbuster either, prompting a frustrated Costello to leave Columbia in favor of Warner Bros. But while Spike, his 1989 Warner debut, spawned his first top-twenty American hit ("Veronica," co-written with Paul McCartney), his stay at the company wasn't a happy one. Much of the fault for the tepid response to 1991's Mighty Like a Rose, 1993's The Juliet Letters (made with the Brodsky Quartet), and the 1995-'96 stopgaps Kojak Variety and All This Useless Beauty should be left at Costello's door: They're the types of failures that only a truly talented and ambitious artist can produce. (Juliet, for instance, is so appallingly snobbish that it exerts a strange fascination--like the sinking of the Titanic.)
Still, Costello is convinced that some of his finest compositions can be found on these mainly forgotten CDs. "There were definitely some records that I felt should have done better, and I know there are good songs on them that people really respond to when they get the chance to hear them. I've been playing 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected,' which closed Mighty Like a Rose, on the road, and it's really had a remarkable impact on the shows we've done in Europe. That song has been sort of key to the shows, even though it's not really that well-known."
Not that Costello's current set list is larded with obscurities; he guarantees a generous sampling of fan favorites. But the core of the material is culled from Painted From Memory, a disc that promises more than it can deliver. "God Give Me Strength," a song concocted by Costello and Bacharach for the little-seen film Grace of My Heart, is rich, fervent, and divertingly melodramatic, but most of the other tunes are burdened by self-consciousness; they're redundantly mid-tempo, with lyrics that are overwhelmed by pretentiousness and vocals as strained as the rhymes. Bacharach's songs from the '60s and '70s, written for artists such as Dionne Warwick and the Carpenters, have benefited from historical revisionism that implies a profundity that's often illusory, but the best of them can be flowery fun. The Memory tunes, by contrast, are overtly "artistic" in a way that blanches the good times right out of them, resulting in an album that's a lot easier to admire than enjoy.
Unsurprisingly, Costello has another view: He feels that he and Bacharach brought out the best in each other. Indeed, he's bothered that many boosters of the disc think that his only contribution to it was the words. "That's completely wrong," he says. "I wrote more than my fair share of the music on the album, and on certain songs, I wrote the lion's share of it. Burt wouldn't mind me saying that; it's just a fact. And when you hear them in piano and voice renditions, I think you hear the Costello part of the equation. I hope it's not distortedly larger, but it's unavoidably me."
The Bacharach connection recently came in handy on the movie front. Among the factors that contributed to Bacharach's comeback was an appearance in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. For the inevitable sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, good ol' Burt brought Elvis along: Viewers will see Bacharach tickling the ivories as Costello warbles the Warwick smash "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." On the new version, which appears on the soundtrack alongside fresh offerings from Madonna, R.E.M., Lenny Kravitz, and Dr. Evil (you haven't lived until you've heard "Just the Two of Us [Dr. Evil Mix]"), Costello plays it straight, but the orchestration, complete with muted trumpets, overtly lachrymose strings, and some saucy tapping on a wooden block, ups Painted From Memory's grooviness quotient considerably. "Maybe that will bring in a lot more people to my audience," Costello says. "Who knows what may happen?"
If such exposure succeeds in turning Costello into the love balladeer of the VH1 set, it will only be the latest step in his surprising, mid-period infiltration of popular culture. Today songs such as "Alison" and "The Only Flame in Town" are regularly used by music services that provide background sounds for supermarkets, and there's hardly a professional hockey or basketball arena in this country that doesn't play "Pump It Up" at least once per game, even though the song was widely thought to be about masturbation back in the day. Costello cackles at this irony, but he wasn't laughing when Nike execs offered him big bucks to let them use the tune in sneaker commercials. He turned them down flat and is currently involved in a legal dispute with an English firm that's using the song without authorization. His reasons for these moves are simple.
"I think it's a bad deal for the people who bought the record in good faith," he says. "They've bought the record, and it meant what they wanted it to mean or what they assumed it meant. Like in the case of 'Pump It Up': If you imagine that the song is about masturbation, then that's what it's about to you. The fact that it isn't has got nothing to do with it. But if it suddenly becomes about cheese, then that's another matter. That really robs you of the little bit of imagination you've got about it, and I don't think that's really fair."
Neither, Costello feels, is the continuing inability of some observers to let him grow up. "It would be a fairly boneheaded person that would still try to define the records I'm doing currently in terms of 1978, but it still happens with a whole lot of people," he says. "I think most of them write for Rolling Stone. But I worked out pretty early on that you were mostly liked for things that didn't have anything to do with what you thought you were good at. I was overpraised for certain things and ignored for other good things. So I was deeply suspicious of my early success and the lack of comprehension that appeared to be brought forward in certain quarters, even among people who bought the records. Then, later on, once I got over that period, I found that I was able to speak to the people in the audience directly--sing to them without any confusion or any illusion. And I was able to change directions musically, following what I thought was something new or interesting that I had learned or became fascinated in. And if I lost some people along the way, I gained other new ones."
In other words, the man who once said his songs were entirely motivated by "revenge and guilt" is walking on the sunny side of the street. "It's not like I'm enjoying myself every minute," he says. "There are frustrations when you see good work kind of thrown down the drain, and there are difficult moments in terms of writing or recording or just doing concerts well. But I reckon that, so long as you keep doing it, it's certainly better than working for a living. It's definitely better than any job I ever did before this--and to get paid for it is amazing."
As for the fans who approach him now, he swears that he is much more gracious than he once was. "It takes quite a bit of courage to come up to somebody you recognize and try to engage them in something like a sensible conversation, and I try to take that into account," he notes. "And I'm glad to let them know that I'm not retired."
Elvis Costello, with Steve Nieve. 8 p.m., Tuesday, June 22, Nautica Stage, 2014 Sycamore Street, the Flats, $25-37.50, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.