Now that his recently reissued debut album, ”My Aim is True,” has hit the 25-year mark, Elvis Costello joins the very short list of major rock & rollers who have sustained greatness for a quarter century. After leading the new wave surge and creating a cluster of memorable albums with his band the Attractions, he went on to explore a wild variety of genres: country (1981’s ”Almost Blue”), neo-classical (1993’s ”The Juliet Letters,” a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet), torch balladry (1998’s Burt Bacharach collaboration ”Painted From Memory”) — all the while bridging the gap between the insolent feistiness of the post-punk era and Cole Porter’s panache in his witty, sophisticated lyrics. Costello’s new album, ”When I Was Cruel,” is being celebrated by fans and critics as a return to the harsher and more acerbic sounds of his early albums. Before the album’s release, he talked with us about his old songs, new material, and impressive career.
Some fuss has been made over the fact that this is the 25th anniversary of your first album.
I get a bit confused, because I started making that record [1977’s ”My Aim is True”] in 1976, and I don’t really count those kinds of anniversaries with any significance. I always think, why is 25 years important? Why isn’t 26? It’s just perverse of me, I know. But I never understood all that century stuff. It’s a bit odd, the way we break it down.
Did you ever get people at record labels telling you, ”Elvis, with all this genre-hopping, you’re diluting the brand”?
But who would that person have been? That figure of extreme authority who’s been on the job five years, or me who’s been in the job 25 years? I rank everybody now. If Bob Dylan were to come up to me and say that, I might have a thought for it. But there’s not too many people that have been doing what they do as long as I’ve been doing what I do. And trying to make a record I made in 1978 over and over again wouldn’t be a serious endeavor for anybody.
Filmmakers take on and cast off their identities and the roles they’re involved with and the people they’re involved with. Like when Stanley Kubrick made ”Dr. Strangelove” and ”Spartacus” and ”2001”…. Really the only person who’s in popular music with that kind of range is Dylan. Just, say, with the last two records — they’re so contrasting. One [”Time Out of Mind”] is drained of extraneous images, and then the next one [”Love and Theft”] is filled with them. In rock & roll, I suppose I can’t think of any other examples. If they have the range, they don’t have the scope or the scale. If they have the scope and the scale, they don’t have the other things that make music good.
Did you feel that pressure to return to an earlier style from your audience, though?
Inevitably, you’re going to get some people who are younger and don’t have the same sentimentality about those early records. I know that was the case when I played at Woodstock ’99. There was no consensus in the crowd about who I was and what they were expecting. Because of the age of the audience, they had no prior knowledge of my repertoire. The only song of mine they recognized was ”I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and once we did the ”Austin Powers” song, we could do no wrong.
You went through a few years when you were identified as a crooner. But on your new record, your vocals are much more raw, even distorted-sounding.
The thing is, I didn’t sing in the studio for some of it. On ”Dust,” I’m singing live in the control room with just a regular stage mike, using the playback speakers as a sound system. So that put a real ferocious sound on them. And I wasn’t prettying up my voice because I’m not singing with any vibrato to speak of.