One thing about having a health scare in public: You get to hear from everyone.
“I was very touched by some of the things that people wrote and the calls I got,” says Elvis Costello in the wake of his announcement this past July of a cancerous malignancy that was thankfully, as he wrote on his website, “defeated by a single surgery.” From far-flung friends to perfect strangers, the well-wishes poured in for the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. “I was just in Liverpool last week, and people would stop me and ask me [how I was doing], so, you know, you’ve got to be thankful for that.”
In addition to his good health, Costello’s fans can be thankful for Look Now, a superlative 12-track collection largely written by himself with key assists on three songs from Burt Bacharach and one from Carole King. Not too shabby, doll.
“How lucky am I to have, ‘Here’s a song I wrote with Carole King’ ?” Costello asks rhetorically of “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter.” “Not to mention the fact that Burt and I have written something like 25 songs together over the last 10 or 12 years.” Not all of those compositions were originally intended for a Costello album but instead two separate musical projects that the pair were commissioned to write scores for, including one based on their joint 1998 album, Painted From Memory. “When that didn’t come to fruition — and I realized that we would maybe wait a long time for the fashions of Broadway to change to the kind of slow, intense melancholy that’s in a lot of these songs — [I thought] maybe I should frame some of these compositions with some other tunes of my own, and bring them out into the light,” says the 64-year-old Brit. “I think these songs that Burt wrote the music for are as beautiful as anything he’s written.”
Careful listeners of both the album and of Costello’s catalog may make some connections between the tracks. For instance, “Under Lime” is a sequel of sorts to “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” from 2010’s National Ransom, and “Don’t Look Now” and the lacerating “He’s Given Me Things” are bookends to the tale of a romantic relationship. But Costello isn’t worried if listeners don’t pick up on the connective threads.
“One of the things that I think I’ve learned from the history of musical theater, and just being interested in it, is that some of the greatest songs that I can think of were taken in and out of different shows, so they always had to make sense for the duration of the song.” he says. “And so even if I wrote some of these songs originally intending to place them in a score, I wanted them to stand alone, and be able to tell their tale in the three or four minutes that it took to listen to them. So you don’t have to know any of that backstory to appreciate the song.”
From his timeless pop-rock hits like “Alison,” “Pump It Up,” and “Veronica” to classical explorations with the Brodsky Quartet to Wise Up Ghost, his 2013 collaboration with venerated hip-hop group the Roots, Costello has traveled many different musical roads. But he’s pleased that his current journey led him back to the Imposters. Costello calls the monstrously talented group — keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Davey Faragher — “my best pals in music.” (The quartet is hitting the road this fall to support Look Now.)
Speaking of old friends, he is aware of the recent interview in which Paul McCartney said that he had envisioned Costello as a voice in his head scolding him for using Auto-Tune. “That’s one of the greatest things. Can you imagine my shock?” says Costello with a laugh of his former collaborator. “I never quite get over that I know Paul. Because he’s Paul, and yet he’s so very kind. And to always kind of be remembering me fondly as that contrarian voice in his head, it’s nice to be remembered that way. And to go back to your very first question: Yes, of course it was very, very reassuring to know that people were concerned that I was okay, but, you know, you will see a few remarks from people going, ‘I never liked him anyway.’ And it’s good to think Paul McCartney still thinks I might be disapproving of the idea that he had Auto-Tune on his record.” But would Costello be? He says with another laugh of the Beatle, “He can do what the hell he wants!”