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Elvis Costello on His ‘Clockface’ Album, ‘Armed Forces’ Set and Coming Broadway Musical: ‘I’ve Spent My Whole Career Leaning Backwards to Launch Forward’

Elvis Costello knows that, this deep into a four-decade-plus career, he will always be asked the inevitable then-and-now questions about how his attitude has changed, beckoning the 66-year-old to pit the late-1970s version of himself against the gentler and more accomplished Costello that constitutes this century’s model. That doesn’t mean he has to like it; asking him to do a self-compare-and-contrast is one of the few things you could bring up that risks evincing the vintage 1978 glare.

“You know, that’s an analyst’s question, that question they always ask,” he says — referring to journalists’ eagerness to put him on the couch to measure his levels of amusement and disgust, then versus now — “and I try not to be impatient with it. But if for some reason you had to have your legs sawn off, you would not ask the surgeon poised with the hacksaw, ‘How did you feel about your vocation in medicine when you were a student?,’ would you?” He continues: “You surely feel something valuable has happened in the time, even if you’ve made mistakes. And, you know, mistakes, I’ve made a few. But then again, too few to mention.”

As it turns out, Costello is perfectly happy to talk about his youthful days, as long as he doesn’t feel like he’s being subjected to Freud’s talking cure. And it’s a good thing he has that comfort level, because he is being asked to chat up two projects that, apparently by coincidence, are coming out nearly simultaneously: his strikingly good 31st studio album, “Hey Clockface,” which dropped Oct. 30, and a deluxe vinyl boxed set commemorating his third album, the 1979 masterpiece “Armed Forces,” which arrives just a week later, on Nov. 6. There is a lot of clock-punching, or smashing, to go around in this sudden flurry of releases.

He quotes a couplet from “Newspaper Pane,” one of the tunes from the brand new album: “’I don’t spend my time perfecting the past / I live for the future because I know it won’t last.’ That’s spoken by a character in the song, but there are days when I really feel that. The effort to critique the past is one thing. To live to solely devote yourself to correcting it is surely energy that should be spent on making a better future. Now, maybe you can’t do one without the other,” he acknowledges. “Lots of people would argue that. And I have spent my whole creative career leaning backwards to launch forward.” In context, he’s talking partly about how he’s always acknowledged borrowing from his musical forebears, but it could just as easily describe how,  as the juxtaposition of new and catalog releases suggests, he’s standing on the shoulders not just of the giants who preceded him, but his own, too.

These old and new works are almost ridiculously incomparable in style, but there is a striking commonality. “Hey Clockface” doesn’t sound remotely like his last album, “Look Now,” which didn’t sound like any of the ones before it. And “Armed Forces” found Costello already shedding the lean, frantic signature sound of the prior record, “This Year’s Model,” to embrace the possibilities of the studio in a more ambitious and even grandiose way. Outside of the Beatles and David Bowie, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the small canon of rock ’n’ roll greats so eager to stretch himself, then and now.

Although most of the new album was recorded in a couple sessions immediately prior to quarantine, Costello allows that we probably wouldn’t be getting “Hey Clockface” in this form without the pandemic. He and his 21st-century band, the Imposters, were 10 days into a U.K. tour in March when “we started to see holes in the crowd, [despite] knowing that the halls were sold out — whole rows of people that didn’t want to put themselves at risk. So I had to call a halt. The border was about to close to Canada,” where he lives with wife Diana Krall and their 13-year-old twin sons. “Once I got over the shock of being launched back home, I had time to think and listen to what we had done.”

Specifically, what Costello had done was take time out before and during those tour dates to book quick, experimental sessions — by himself, as a clanging one-man rock band in Helsinki, and with a jazzy combo of Parisians put together by his keyboard player Steve Nieve in France. (He had even booked time with his touring band and his old producer Nick Lowe in London, with a whole different set of songs earmarked to work on, but those plans got scotched and will wait for another day and another album.)

He points to a tune on “Hey Clockface” to illustrate what he considers a narrow escape. “There’s a song called ‘What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?’” Costello says. “And in some ways that might be the explanation of how this album came about. Because I might well have worked my way out of a good record by just recording so much stuff I couldn’t hear where the story was anymore.”

The new album is intriguingly genre-less — aided in this regard by using the Parisian musicians on nine of the 14 tracks. “It’s never great to get a lot of conversation in the way of making music,” Costello adds. “We didn’t have to theorize, because we couldn’t — because I don’t speak French. So nobody asked for my passport in the sense of: Is this jazz? Is this classical music? Is it pop music, of a kind? I didn’t feel I needed to waste any time giving it a name; it was a far better use of time to write and sing it.”

There’s no danger of the new album being mistaken for a “guitar record” — with the exception of the first song Costello released from it, “No Flag,” which he did in his DIY Helsinki sessions. Its rejection of not just nationalism but any creed sounds unusually nihilistic for someone who has domestic tranquillity waiting at home in Vancouver … almost like something out of the punk era, we point out. “Which punks are you talking about?” retorts Costello, smiling. “The punks in 1969, maybe, more than some punks in 1977.”

He explains the mood behind the tune: “There’s some days where there’s no consolation in any allegiance, any philosophy, religion — even the words of a lover. There’s some days where none of it matters, and it doesn’t mean anybody would want to stay there forever, but maybe it’s better to write that out in a song.” Costello says he has no need to “live in the past, trying to summon up some old kind of fury. Because I’ve got all the fury that I need right now. Put on ‘No Flag’ and tell me which track on ‘This Year’s Model’ is more aggressive than that. There isn’t one.”

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Elvis Costello in 2020 Photo by Lens O’Toole

As a follow-up to the agitation of “This Year’s Model,” 1979’s “Armed Forces” might have had even more rage to it — but it was better disguised, as Costello, his band the Attractions and Lowe committed to putting more of a pop sheen on the songs, trading organ for synths or, on the politicized “Oliver’s Army,” a piano sound they borrowed from ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

“By the time we got to ‘Armed Forces,’ we had the idea we wanted to make an actual studio record,” Costello recalls. “And that was our version of what a studio sounded like. We played cassettes in the station wagon driving around America for the first time, of the same four or five records round and around. Little wonder that became our language for that next record, things that we were listening to in that moment — including ABBA. We put aside the rock ’n’ roll, Small Faces/Rolling Stones references of ‘This Year’s Model’ and into it came the synthesizer, which came from those David Bowie and Iggy Pop records — ‘Station to Station,’ ‘Low,’ ‘Heroes,’ ‘The Idiot,’ ‘Lust for Life.’” Then, considering more stripped-down techno influences, he adds, “I don’t think we thought we were making a Giorgio Moroder record, but we liked the mechanistic sound of Kraftwerk, even if we weren’t going to make records that were that austere. I wanted the emotion in them.”

Guitar music figured in — barely. “Certainly ‘Party Girl’ has a reference to the Beatles, obviously in the arpeggio at the end. There are some Cheap Trick songs that sound like that too, though, and we loved Cheap Trick. So were we ripping off the Beatles, or were we just ‘Hey, Cheap Trick — I like them’?” He hears us chuckle at the idea he might’ve been influenced as much in the moment by Rick Nielsen as George Harrison. “You’re laughing,” he says, “but I’m deadly serious!”

Columbia Records added a cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” recorded for another project, to the album. “They thought it sounded more rock ’n’ roll than many of the other things, and that’s what they wanted. This record didn’t suit them at all.” Although Costello says of the song that “in my mind, it’s not even on this album” (and it wasn’t, on the original U.K. version), he’s not unhappy that it became so wildly popular that fans have expected to hear his version of Lowe’s tune closing out most of his shows for 40 years now.

“I think there was a little irony in the way Nick recorded it originally,” Costello says, recalling that Lowe first had the idea of gently satirizing hippie sentiments with “Peace, Love and Understanding.” “But if you’ve ever heard him perform it in recent years, he sings it very much like the lament that it deserves to be. I think both approaches to the song are really appropriate. I like all the versions of the song that I’ve heard. Sometimes it takes you a moment to hear it again in a different way, but I’ve had reason to sing it as a ballad, as a rocker and somewhere in between. I’ve heard Bruce Springsteen sing it and Chris Cornell sing it, and Josh Homme sang it with Sharon Van Etten. I mean,  there’s some really good versions. Nick’s version with a choir earlier this year was beautiful. You know, it shouldn’t be needed now, but we still have to sing it. How long, how long must we sing this song — as Bono said, you know?”

Costello’s new album includes one ballad, “The Whirlwind,” borrowed from a planned Broadway musical adaptation of “A Face in the Crowd,” delayed by the pandemic. “I did think about recording the songs for ‘A Face in the Crowd’ last year. I thought about that being my next recording, my renditions of these songs, because I’ve performed many of them over the last four years as we’ve been developing the show. For the very same reasons as I’m not currently on my way to South Dakota or somewhere to play a show, we’re not opening in previews the theater this week as we might have been. Instead, next week we’re entering into another workshop, which obviously is over this kind of medium,” he says, referring to Zoom.

Despite the Trump parallels people have seen in the 1957 film about a grifter who turns sudden media stardom into political ambition, Costello thinks the theme will stay fresh regardless of election results. “Budd Schulberg couldn’t have imagined Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan when he wrote the book, let alone the current catastrophes,” he marvels, referring to the early-’50s short story that the writer adapted into a seemingly prophetic screenplay. “So whatever the coming days bring, it will still be a story worth telling, because Schulberg originally wrote this tale of ‘A Face in the Crowd’ about somebody who was summoned up from the dark impulses of the audience. We still have to tell a story about what the relationship is between the audience’s desires and how they’re reflected in a particular kind of ruthless, raw talent on television.”

Costello does worry a bit for this adopted realm he’s entered into, though: “I hope the theater world survives this particular thing. They have a lot more moving parts. I can always walk up with just one guitar and sing you a new song I just wrote.”

With new music and old in the marketplace, though, Costello is handling the Broadway delay with patience and equanimity. There are other projects on hold, too: a redo of “This Year’s Model” with all the lead vocals replaced by those of some of the top singers from Latin music, in Spanish, which was to have come out in 2020 but can hold till next year. And that new set of songs to record with the Imposters, if Lowe is still as willing to come out of producing retirement for it in 2021 as he seemed to be in March. Even though he had a health scare a few years back, he thinks more about how some of the songs he recorded on his previous record, “Look Now,” took 30 years to get recorded, and he thinks they came out the better for that wait.

“What are we rushing for?” he says, taking the quarantine slowdown in surprising stride. He repeats himself with even more of a gust of ebullience, laughing: “What are we rushing for?” I’m not going anywhere.” ●

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