I know where the bodies are buried and the choices that I can’t or won’t take,” Elvis Costello tells me with utter conviction and without going into the specifics. He’s sitting under a photograph of a young Aretha Franklin in mid-song and cradling what appears to be a Fender bass guitar, which he seems to be on the verge of playing but never does. He’s outside Vancouver, where he lives with his wife, the jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, and their two 13-year-old sons, and I’m on my front porch in Syracuse talking to him through my computer screen. We are both wearing black sweaters and specs. Sometimes I wear a hat, as he does. Maybe I’d be dressed this way if I had never heard Costello, but this person was still the same character who grabbed hold of me at age 14 and never let go.
For millions of spectacle wearers like me who came of age in the 1980s, if you put on an Elvis Costello record, it all comes rushing back: your adolescent bile and angst, the pique of every slight, your ex-friends and ex-lovers. It’s an awkward thing to try to thank him for, so I don’t. He was born Declan MacManus in London in 1954 and, thanks to his bandleader father, had access to the latest records: Joni Mitchell’s Song to a Seagull, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, Charles Mingus’s Oh Yeah, along with Marvin and Tammi, Lou Rawls, Frank Sinatra, Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, and on and on.
“I’ve been lucky to have access to stacks of records pocket money couldn’t have afforded me,” he tells me. “By the time I was 13, 14, I was saving money to buy a guitar, but after that, every penny I spent was on records. I never bought clothes.”
Some of the records had sounds he could never reproduce. Others demonstrated a way into who he could become. “The singer I wanted to be like when I was a kid was Levi Stubbs,” he says. “I wanted to have that kind of voice, like a stun gun, you know, but Rick Danko had a kind of desperation in his voice, with that nervous, like, throw-yourself-at-it way that he did. He was a very fearless singer.”
Desperation. Nervousness. Young Declan took it all in. You could take your vulnerabilities as far as rock and roll could allow, even beyond rock and roll when you wanted to. His adenoidal singing voice is not perfect, but it delivers catharsis. And in this pandemic — which cut short his tour in mid-March; he flew back from London to Canada while he still could — who couldn’t use some?
“My vibrato is actually an affliction,” he says when we discuss his distinctive singing on ballads. “It’s because I have a heart murmur. And I think it affects my breathing.”
Pause. I didn’t know this.
“But emotionally, it’s so right for the material,” he says.
“Well, there were no held notes in my early material, so nobody knew I had it till tempos dropped a little bit and it came out. I have certain limitations in my breathing. It’s like being color-blind. You can have an appreciation of art and be color-blind. You can read when you’re shortsighted. You take everything that happens in stride.”
Costello always sounds like he’s in a battle. And, growing up, many of us felt that he was battling for us. Take “Pump It Up,” a 1978 angry-young-man classic. It used to surface at basketball games, although its subject is not about scoring but what happens when one doesn’t: “Pump it up, until you can feel it / Pump it up, when you don’t really need it.”
And now he’s even given us a bleak, defiant pandemic anthem: “No Flag,” on which he sings: “I got no religion, I got no philosophy / got a head full of ideas and words that don’t seem to belong to me.” It was the first track to drop from Hey Clockface, which, depending on who is doing the counting, is Costello’s 31st studio album, out October 30. Costello’s indignant muse is still going.
A girlfriend once told me that Costello sounded to her like the angry guy masturbating on the other side of the door. Which is a creepy image and not something anybody wants to think about. Male sexual frustration has gone from being an acceptably ubiquitous font of artistic inspiration to something that sounds like incel, and whether or not that is entirely fair, the culture has more important injustices on its mind, and that is okay.
Earlier this year, Costello won his second Grammy for Look Now, a collection of what he calls “uptown pop,” released shortly after a cancer scare, for which he had successful surgery. The music — belted out, brooded, crooned — continues apace. In an early interview, as a 22-year-old seeking attention in 1977, he proclaimed all of his songs come from “revenge and guilt,” knowing that he had already revealed his tenderness in “Alison,” a song about trying to make a woman’s pain go away with a refrain that still resounds in his most recent live performances: “My aim is true.”
Over the years, Costello became expeditionary, taking us loyal fans along with him. If you were someone who loved This Year’s Model in brutal youth, then sought out jazz, bluegrass, country, and classical, you would find Costello wrote in all of these genres, and that voice of umbrage was unmistakable everywhere he went. Pushing 40, he learned to drive, speak Italian, and finally read music.
Costello charted more in the U.K. than in America but still sometimes floated into the mainstream here. “Everyday I Write the Book” (1983) became an MTV hit and can still be heard in supermarkets. His recordings of “She” (from the credits of Notting Hill) and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” are perhaps his best-known tracks, even though he wrote neither of them.
He is on record trashing the royal family and writing a song, “Tramp the Dirt Down,” about dancing on Margaret Thatcher’s grave, yet he is now an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) — on receiving the honor, he mentioned that his mum thought Prime Minister Theresa May was “rubbish.” When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored him years ago, he thanked Franz Schubert.
Our conversation is not only about Costello’s own music but, just as much, about why the Dylan of Triplicate and “Murder Most Foul” should be considered a great singer (as a Sinatra-league storyteller, not in the America’s Got Talent sense), how the late period of Leonard Cohen knocked him out, his amazement at watching Count Basie play a piano solo from a few feet away, how he at 16 was transfigured by a performance of Joni Mitchell singing the Blue songs in Manchester before they were on record, why Lou Reed kissed him on both cheeks after a performance on the Letterman show, and how he wrote songs with Paul McCartney, always harmonizing on the lower end, trying not to evoke the Beatles, until they couldn’t help themselves and did it anyway. There is so much to say, and even more clues about where the bodies are buried. But don’t expect him to do the digging for you.
“I don’t really read the backstories of people,” he says.
“Should people read the backstory of you?” I ask.
“I don’t care. They could read the backstory I wrote. Half of it’s lies.”
“But you reveal so much in the music.”
“Or do I?”
On the screen, I can see my reflection and crumbling porch in his trademark specs. I guess he can see himself. Does he see me reading his backstory? Does he care?
The truth is Elvis is not only the soundtrack to our spotty and frustrated backstories; for many of us, he embodies the backstories. He is the thing that we wished we could have said in the moment but would have regretted if we had. He reminds us of our resentments and our lack of nerve — the unsent message, the unreturned call, the voice in our head that tells us to want the wrong person and to want that person so badly it could kill us. (His last album has a song called “Unwanted Number.”) He is the thing we really want to do but can’t and, in any case, probably shouldn’t. That voice still reminds us of all we didn’t have the courage to be and the regret that there was some even deeper desire somewhere for an outcome that would surely be the worst of all.
It is more natural to talk about the songs that express these feelings than the feelings themselves. In songs like “I Want You,” from Blood & Chocolate (1986), one element that sets Costello apart is palpable sexual jealousy:
I want you
It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for
It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for
I want you
It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing
It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing
These are not hard lyrics to decode. It’s like an open wound. But Costello doesn’t want to talk about its emotional content. He wants to talk about songwriting almost in a technical sense. He mentions that two of his favorite artists — Dylan and Lennon — had songs called “I Want You” first. He listened very closely. “You have to distinguish between what is communicating an emotional truth and what is just a tantrum,” he says. “The Lennon ‘I Want You’ repeats the title probably as much as my song does. That song is a carnal celebration. My song is the opposite. I think it’s more interesting now for me to regard it in the past. When I come upon it, I come upon it like an actor who has to play a role that’s been written down. It’s a litany. You’re obsessive sounding, and the melodies are very simple, but it keeps landing on this very unexpected minor chord that doesn’t fit. There are certain choices in there. It’s not just a raw spontaneous wailing.”
“No Flag,” off the new album, feels appropriate to this long, sinking moment. “The song was written before the turn of the year, and it’s something I’d been thinking on for a while,” he says. “Just the idea that there are days when other circumstances than the ones we are living through now get you to the edge, like, on the precipice — whatever that precipice is. Where it’s … nothing satisfies you. No philosophical idea, no theological idea, no allegiance. None of it is consoling.”
He continues, “That’s the reason to write the song. Oddly enough, it was a really joyful experience to make the record, because I was in Helsinki,” a choice he made because “I wanted to literally go somewhere I’d never been and start to make a rock-and-roll record without a blueprint. Make everything on the record a drum, and my voice is a drum, drum machine is a drum, the organ is a drum, the guitar is a drum. There’s no bass until the chorus, so everything in the first minute and a half, two minutes of the record is a drum.”
“Do you feel that way in real life?” I ask.
“What, everything is a drum?”
“No, no. No flag, no God, no religion …”
“Not every single day, obviously, but the days you do feel like that, there should be a theme song for it. So that is the theme song for it, you know?”
On another song, “We’re All Cowards Now,” I was getting concerned that Elvis, in this haunting A-minor blues — that could be in a mash-up with “Summertime” and “Bad Guy” — was lamenting that the government was coming for our guns:
They’re coming for our Peacemakers
Our Winchesters and Colts
The rattle of our Gatling guns
Our best cowboy revolts and threats and insults
Which sounds a bit … right-wing paranoid, maybe? I ask him if he owns a gun. He says, “Me? I will not touch a gun.”
“But there are guns all over the lyrics to that song.”
“They’re all over the world.”
“But it sounds like you’re saying that people are coming for our guns, but we’re all cowards.”
“Well, it doesn’t really matter what I think or do. I’m singing about somebody who’s fearful. There’s that line, ‘They’re draping stones with colors and a roll of stolen names, except those we never cared about and those we need to blame.’ We’re very selective about who we mourn. We mourn the victims of outrages, but when the outrages are done in our name, we don’t mourn the names of the people that are killed. The repetitive nature of revenge and hatred is such that we do that at our peril, because eventually, it rebounds.”
Elvis can’t go anywhere anymore, not even to visit his older son or 93-year-old mum in the U.K. Nobody’s out on tour, the concert halls are closed, and yet he works on, with a musical based on Elia Kazan’s film A Face in the Crowd, a three-part comedic drama, an audio pamphlet about making music, a Spanish-language album, music for Tommy McLain and Rodney Crowell, and secrets he’s keeping under his hat. Don’t start me talking; I could talk all night.
He may evolve, he may age, he may be knighted, but he is also, for many of us, the one who made us think he knows who we really are. His voice is the one that says, I know this world is killing you. But in the end, we are just left with ourselves. Elvis can’t tell us our secrets any more than anyone else. He’s not going to tell us. And yet he knew I had to ask.
“So where are the bodies buried?”
He smiles. If we talked forever, we’d never get there. “I’m not going to tell you that,” he says, “because that’s what I have to know in order to sing them!”
*This article appears in the October 26, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!