Before the pandemic hit, Elvis Costello was living what he calls a “carefree and jet-set” lifestyle. He’d recorded a well-received album, 2020’s Hey Clockface, completed a tour, and had even tracked a handful of new songs in Helsinki and Paris before Covid hit pause on the world.
“The next thing, I found myself staring at the water on Vancouver Island, not knowing when I would leave again, not knowing when we’d start work again,” he says on a call from his Manhattan home this past November. “So I looked at a group of songs that I had begun that year, and I saw they were actually connected in some ways. They were, I hate to use the word ‘philosophical,’ but they did have a look at life at different times —the innocence of childhood, the confusion of young adulthood, and then looking back at different things with a different perspective later.” Those tunes — some of which sound carefree and jet-set, some which reflect the singer-songwriter’s trademark bittersweet brooding — now comprise his 32nd studio album, The Boy Named If, out this week.
Costello, who was born Declan MacManus in London 67 years ago, has always been an introspective songwriter, chronicling the acrimony, shame, and occasional glimmers of hope that accompany everyday life for the past 40-plus years. He’s the first to point out that while songs like “Alison” and “Pump It Up” are beloved classics, neither were smash successes. His biggest hit in the U.S. came in 1987 with “Veronica,” a song about the unlikely subject of Alzheimer’s that peaked at Number 19 on the Billboard chart. So his perspective on his career is that it’s been successful enough to allow him to keep making more albums, tour, and collaborate with artists he grew up admiring. Over the years, he’s taken advantage of opportunities to work with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the Roots, and many others. His artistry earned the singer an Order of the British Empire medal for his contributions to the arts.
In an interview for Rolling Stone’s Last Word column, Costello reflected on what he’s learned at nearly every stage of his life and what keeps him going. “I’ve been doing it long enough now that I should’ve learned something,” he says. “For heaven’s sake, you can become a priest and a doctor in seven years; I’ve been doing this 43, I should be able to do something by now. I certainly can’t do anything else.”
In 1977, you said that your primary motivations were “revenge and guilt.” Does that still hold true?
Yeah, I had drunk about half a bottle of Pernod when I said that. I thought it sounded good and so did the journalist, and then I have people quoting it back to me as if it was a page from the catechism. It’s just some moment of bravado. It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But think it through for a minute and it doesn’t make sense. But awfully picturesque.
How did you learn to move past that press persona?
Making 30 or more albums. Each one is different in personality. Those records sometimes require you to unpack that mythmaking aspect of those first few records, because if you listen to the individual songs on those first albums, you’ll find much more nuance to what’s being said about anything. And to some degree, if you’re stuck with my face and my voice, things sound more aggressive because I’m a freak of nature. I have a gap in my teeth. Everything explodes out of my mouth as either a threat or a snarl [laughs].
What do you think caused you to think about the various stages of life while writing the songs on The Boy Named If?
I do have boys that will be 15 next week, and an elder son who’s in his forties, so I have the perspective on some of these transitions. And I lost my father 10 years ago; I lost my mother early last year. Those things will tend to make you think about yourself as a child because now you’re promoted by that event in some way.
How did your mother and father influence you as a songwriter?
I wrote a 600-page book [2015’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink] sort of romanticizing the stories of my grandfather and my father as traveling musicians and how it influenced me. But I also began that book when my father was in his last illness with Parkinson’s. Although he had passed during the process of me writing that book, he was sort of alive on the page, wasn’t he? The actual truth was, it was my mother that told me to write things down that troubled me or bothered me, both good and bad ways. That was her example.
You have a line on “Farewell, OK,” a track from the new record, about “Elvis in the velvet hereafter.” What’s your relationship with the name Elvis now?
I never really hear it because my family don’t call me that; most people call me by my initials, which my dad began. He called me “D.P.” [for “Declan Patrick”] so that’s an Irish convention, I guess, that he picked up. And I don’t really hear many people call me by that name, so I just don’t hear it anymore. It’s like a secret identity, or something; it’s like being called Clark Kent. It’s just a name. It’s just a brand.
You’ve played with the Attractions’ Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas for more than 40 years in different capacities. What’s the secret to making a collaboration like that work?
Well, of course there was a time when we didn’t work together. They had different views of what that band was; we had reached an end with that band a couple of times, two or three times, long before we actually disbanded for the first time, let alone the second time. … Even when we weren’t cohesive, we made good records. Blood & Chocolate was a good record, and we were completely at war most of the time. Sometimes not getting along can be good. You didn’t have to be happy-go-lucky or cheery all the time. That’s not really what it’s about.
What still attracts you to writing rock music?
I don’t like much rock music. I like rock & roll. I think if you lose the roll part, a lot of the fun goes out of it. And when people ask me, “What’s your favorite record?” I usually don’t name any electric-guitar records made in the last 30 years because the beat is so square. I like things that float a bit or swing a bit, whether it’s rock & roll or actual jazz that swings, or even the way Hank Williams records lope.
You listen to these records out of Nashville, they couldn’t float if you filled them full of water. They just don’t; they’re square and they sound like bad rock records from the Nineties. To my ear, they just do. But somebody likes them. My grandfather — he was a trumpet player — never used to criticize other musicians. I’m trying to live by his example a little better these times and not be so critical of everybody else. But you can’t like everything.
Do you wish you could record songs in a different style?
I wish I could sing certain types of tunes that I’ll never be able to sing. I don’t think I’m ever going to sing as a countertenor.
What songs do you wish you could sing?
It would be great to sing [Purcell’s] “When I Am Laid in Earth” like Jeff Buckley did at Meltdown in ’95. It was astonishing to hear him sing this piece of music from Jacobean times, and it just feel like it could’ve been written for his voice. But he had such a gift of an instrument of a voice. He could turn that to all sorts of music that took his interest, and it didn’t sound in any way an affectation that he did it. He would sing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan pieces he’d learn phonetically; he didn’t understand the language. He talked about singing Mahler at that festival. I said, “That’s in German. Do you speak German?” “No, I’ll learn it.”
I was curating that festival. Now it’s very poignant because it was his last performance in London, but we didn’t know that then. His life was ahead. There was all these great things that he was still going to do. That was just a very sad coincidence. We should be happy that he sang it that one time. You heard him sing something like [“When I Am Laid in Earth”], surely you’ve heard Grace, you’ve heard “Corpus Christi Carol” by Benjamin Britten — he could sing that as well as he could sing a song by Morrissey, although why anybody would want to do that, I don’t know. Or a song by Led Zeppelin; why anybody would want to do that, I don’t know, but he did. That’s his choice.
You’ve collaborated with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach on songs, but they seem to write words to fit the melodies where you have said you do the opposite. What have you learned from working with them?
With Paul, we started very spontaneously. One of us would start strumming a rhythm and then some harmony would emerge. Like most everybody, I’ve been watching Get Back. And it’s really amazing to see the Beatles writing like that … taking those same stumbling steps that all songwriters take, letting the nonsense words almost carry the tune for a moment, and then the real meaning comes out from that. So I did actually have that experience of writing with Paul in that manner. I’m not saying [my experience is] equal, but that was one of the ways we worked.
What about working with Burt Bacharach?
With Burt Bacharach, it was very different. It was predominantly music first and often one or the other of us would make the first musical statement. In some cases, I wrote a melody to which he would write the bridge. Sometimes writing every other line would come from one or the other of us once we’d got a dialogue going. But then my job would be to respond to the mood and the implication of that music, what would serve that music in a narrative. The mood of the music was very apparently melancholic and reflective, so I didn’t want to overcomplicate lyrics with lots of showy images. I wanted to keep the language fairly plainspoken.
When you’re writing without a collaborator, you can choose to speak simply, or you can sometimes explore more images that the listener has to ponder more. There’s some lyrics that I wrote for Imperial Bedroom that are quite opaque. There are some songs that I wrote 10 years ago that have very clear narratives, like “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” and then others that are much more impressionistic, like “Stations of the Cross.” If you read that lyric, you can see the seams within each verse, but each verse does not necessarily lead to the next; they lead to the chorus. Sometimes it’s almost like the editorial function because the bridge might be from the perspective of the other character in the song, or it might step outside a first-person narrative to observe that. You can travel in time and space just like a novelist can, but you’re doing it in a much more compressed form in a song.
What have you learned about expressing complicated perspectives in your lyrics?
You don’t usually get taken to jail for killing people in songs. “Watching the Detectives,” “Alison,” “Man Out of Time” — these are just early songs that seem to mention murder or shooting people, but they don’t actually describe shooting people. That’s not what they’re about. They’re not about an act of violence at all. They’re about observing violence on a TV or they’re about taking the hope from somebody or taking the will to carry on from yourself. There’s all sorts of ways that you might choose to express it: Sometimes extreme language is used to convey something very mundane, but nevertheless, something that you feel you want to say.
Early on you actively kept “Alison” out of your set lists. Why was that?
Because it was the only ballad we had. It was like a moment where the tension would slacken in the show, and that wasn’t what I wanted. So I felt, “Well, that makes it too easy. Let’s make it a little harder. Let’s play a bunch of songs they haven’t heard yet.” So, we played the second record, which nobody had heard. I think those were probably stronger songs for the Attractions because we had started to record them [for Costello’s first LP with the group, This Year’s Model] and they belonged to us.
Last year, you released Spanish Model, which featured Spanish-speaking singers covering This Year’s Model. Did that give you a new perspective on those songs?
I was sort of shocked to find several of these songs had much better tunes when sung by somebody with an evidently more beautiful voice than I have. “Hand in Hand” quite surprised me. That’s quite a pretty tune. It literally never occurred to me, because it was “don’t ask me to apologize” — all attitude. And then [on Spanish Model] I heard that I’d actually set it to quite a tender tune, much more so than I sang it.
Speaking of attitude, in 1977, you were famously banned from SNL after suddenly switching to “Radio, Radio” in the middle of your slot. How do you look back on that decision now?
Before anybody noticed that we’d even done it, we were back in England, recording the rest of This Year’s Model. We’d forgotten about America temporarily, because we had to be on Top of the Pops in England. We never thought about NBC again. … It’s clear we weren’t going to have a career in television; they told us that. And guess what? I never wanted one, really.