theage.com.au: Nick Miller: August 31st, 2013
We're in a crowded hotel basement in Soho, London. The music is eardrum-crushingly loud over the speakers, and Elvis Costello - yep, Elvis Costello - is here in a blue suit and a hat and a black shirt and tie, sunnies in the coat pocket, and he's cracking jokes and talking about Thatcher and war and art and disillusionment. Cool, right?
We're among the first in the country to hear some new tracks he's laid down in a surprise collaboration with hip-hop legends the Roots. The booze is free over the bar, even though it's barely the afternoon on a Thursday.
Except there are also canapes. And this is Soho in 2013, so the hotel has a roof garden where the beers are 10 quid and everyone you introduce yourself to is a lawyer.
Things change. There's cool and then there's a resampling of cool, a story that you can make sound cool, and maybe it really is cool, but it's different.
Like, just before our interview Costello excuses himself and pops into the bathroom. And when he comes back he's a bit distracted, and he's talking fast and he keeps grasping at a mess of ideas and I think, yeah, he's just had a big line of cocaine - ROCK AND ROLL.
And this is the story I tell people afterwards but, really, I wonder whether he just went for a wee then came back and his mind was elsewhere in his 15th interview of the day. As someone once said, I would rather be anywhere else, than here today …
Elvis Costello. One of those great snarling, tender voices that broke through the cracks of Thatcher's Britain. Alison. Oliver's Army. Watching the Detectives. Veronica. Catchy pop, idiosyncratic rock'n'roll. And the lyrics - metaphorical, complex, angry and heartfelt. He built his songwriting identity, he said once, on guilt and anger. While his style has mellowed a bit (he's working on a musical based on collaborations with Burt Bacharach), his mood is still dark.
But you can see changes. Some new perspectives have been found.
Costello's new album, Wise up Ghost, explores old conflicts and contrasts them with new ones. With the Roots he has gone back to 30-year-old ideas - such as his anti-Thatcherism manifesto Pills and Soap - and found fresh connotations.
''Some of the things that were said in the songs when they were originally written - I want to say they have come true, but to me they have more disturbing significance because they continue to go on, certain actions that are done in our name,'' he says.
There were B-52s, now there are unmanned drones. There was Panama, now Iraq, Afghanistan.
''I did think when I was younger that we would all have jet packs and it would be a great future … and it hasn't worked out that way.''
In his first press interview in 1977, Costello said, ''I'm not going to explain my songs. If you can't hear what's going on from the song itself then god help you.''
It was a confrontational answer from a young man. The older Costello is more revealing.
His example is Tripwire, a tinkling nightmare lullaby of a song on Wise up Ghost rich in imagery. ''Just because you don't speak the language/doesn't mean that you can't understand'' he sings, then ''Tripwire, there's a tripwire/Don't open the door 'cos they're coming/Don't open the door 'cos they're here/Above there's an ominous humming/Below there's a murmur of prayer.''
Costello explains, ''I don't think analytically; I'm just writing. There are some things in the lyrics that are observational but there are some things that are broad strokes, a broad slogan written on a wall. Is that a helicopter above somebody praying? Is that a drone?
''You put the image there to ask the question of yourself … Try to find two lines, paint a picture. You can't preconceive that. You write it, and then ponder it yourself.
''Then when you set it to music it's speaking to you as you sing it, how it feels to sing it. The word 'murmur' and the word 'humming', it's sensual, it's literally sensual.''
In past albums he's refused to even put the lyrics on the cover, believing that with repeated listening, the song should reveal itself.
Or not. ''I know that a lot of people that heard Oliver's Army when it came out didn't know what I was singing about, or care,'' he says.
But this time, he wants them to care. This time he gave in to the boss of Blue Note, who asked for an edition of the record ''where the lyrics could be read without a magnifying glass''. Costello agreed. ''There is something, sometimes to reading a lyric,'' he admits. ''I've resisted that. This is maybe one of those records where I think there's a couple of different things going on, so I appreciate that focus.''
If anything, he's gone to the other extreme. In the video for the album's first single, Walk Us Uptown, he and the Roots' Questlove sit by a record player, crank it up and then the rest of the clip is the lyrics popping up like words from a ransom note, as vinyl spins beneath.
Maybe he's a little sick of being misunderstood. Recently he was attacked for playing Tramp the Dirt Down - his venomous ode to Margaret Thatcher - at concerts in the weeks and months after her death. ''The things she did to this country are still being done today,'' he told the crowd at the Glastonbury music festival. But he asked them to understand ''it's not about burying someone … it's about burying an idea''.
Costello says he doesn't want to be seen as distastefully glorifying Thatcher's death.
''On a human level, I have compassion for her and her family, because I lost [two members of] my family to a dementia-related illness and it is a dreadful thing. I don't actually wish people dead.''
On the other hand, ''some of the same lies are being told on her behalf by [those] who are heirs, who are currently the government, and many of the inequities of her time and a lot of the poison she let out is still in this country.''
So, the song stays.
Wise up Ghost was born from Costello's friendship with Questlove and the Roots, which grew in casual jams after a couple of appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where they are the house band.
They started on a project without a plan or a record deal, based on the suspicion something good would come of it. It began as an idea to re-record old tracks with a new perspective, but it grew as it went along, as they exchanged music and lyrics, sometimes in the Roots' tiny room out the back of the Fallon studios at 30 Rock, sometimes across continents.
For example, the new song Stick out Your Tongue began as beats and bass, and lyrically like 1983's Pills and Soap, then brings in a bit of the chorus of 2010's National Ransom, and mixes in a verse from 1991's Hurry down Doomsday.
Musically it's also a collage, referring to the original key figure of Pills and Soap, but adding other references and new work. Throughout the album are samples from old Costello tracks, and plenty of performance, with the musicians switching instruments.
Again, Costello is running on instinct: that these scraps will recombine in an interesting, not merely random way.
He feels it's appropriate, given his collaborators.
''We're borrowing the methodology of hip-hop, but without making a hip-hop record,'' he says. ''Being able to take something and create something new on that foundation - it's no more or less than [founder of the Specials] Jerry Dammers was doing, or I was doing early on. The Beatles were rewriting Smokey Robinson.
''We didn't feel we wanted to make a rule about having to have references to my other songs, it just sort of started to happen.''
Questlove, real name Ahmir Thompson, is proud of the result.
''Lines are blurring, people are trying to amalgamate everything and get rid of velvet ropes as best they can,'' he says. ''I just knew that I didn't want to do anything less than an album that will hold up in 20 years, a top-10 Elvis Costello album. An album that a 24-year-old me would freak out about.''
Questlove describes the result as an ''apocalyptic love story … It's a moody, brooding affair, cathartic rhythms and dissonant lullabies. I went stark and dark on the music, Elvis went HAM [hard-ass mother f---er] on some ol' Ezra Pound shit.''
Costello seems to be wrestling with his habitual moodiness, though. The album ends on an almost positive note.
''I hope that the record, although it is dark and violent sometimes, it's ultimately - some of the music has humour to it and with the hope that things could be better,'' he says.
''I don't want to write Pollyanna, 'if we wish hard enough, it will be a better world' songs. But that is why the record ends with [the song] If I Could Believe. If I could believe that it would be better, then it would be better.
''I don't believe that right now.''
Some things change and some things don't change. An older and wiser Costello has revisited and remixed his past, but he struggles to get it to spell out hope.
Wise Up Ghost is released on September 13 on Blue Note Records.