Elvis Costello Doesn't Want Your Nostalgia, He Wants You To 'Look Now'

Oct 11, 2018
Originally published on October 11, 2018 3:53 pm

For 20 years, Elvis Costello has wanted to make what he calls an uptown pop record with a little swagger. With his latest album, Look Now, out Oct. 12, Costello has done just that by adding unusual combinations of horns and small string groups to his sound. Costello of course has been around for decades, but one thing he didn't want to make was an album that says, "Remember this guy?"

"It's immediately a bad proposition," Costello says. "But unfortunately, that's a lot of the way both record companies and music magazines run the nostalgia business."

Look Now may lack an obvious nostalgia factor, but Costello does return to familiar ground — songs full of rich characters loaded with desire and heartache. One song in particular, "Stripping Paper," exhibits Costello's storytelling prowess. As the song describes, a woman discovers the unfaithful nature of her husband. As a reaction, she tears away a layer of wallpaper in their house to discover the pencil mark on the wall where their daughter was measured — a fleeting symbol of when the couple was happy.

"I'm not trying to tell everybody what every line is supposed to mean, because everybody will hear it differently," Costello says. "I think, particularly with these songs, they're not songs of judgments at all. They just tell the story and you take out of it what you take out of it, depending on your own experience."

There are other nods to Costello's previous work on Look Now — most notably the return of a character named Jimmie, who first appeared in 2010 on Costello's album National Ransom. "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" told the story of an unsuccessful vaudeville singer, left abandoned at a railway station. It seemed that fans would never hear of Jimmie again, but he now makes a return performance in the song "Under Lime."

"I just decided that he would be found, maybe in semi-obscurity," Costello says of bringing Jimmie back. "One of the things about popular music ... is that you smuggle sometimes quite dark ideas past the listener with a bright tune. I truthfully, originally sent this story to a very much more steady and ballad-like tune, and then I realized that it telegraphed the intentions of the song too much."

Much like the sunny deception of his music, Costello was thrown a curve ball this past summer. As he was putting the finishing touches on this album, Costello's doctors found a potentially cancerous malignancy. The musician had to have surgery and cancelled some of his concerts in July as a result.

"Challenges come up in life and you just have to be grateful for the opportunity to do your work the best you can," he says. "And I'm very thankful for the good wishes I received."

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(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS COSTELLO SONG, "MR. & MRS. HUSH")

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For 20 years, Elvis Costello has wanted to make what he calls an uptown pop record with a little swagger.

ELVIS COSTELLO: By that I mean it's not made in a cellar or a garage, leaving space in the arrangement for a small string group or some unusual combination of horns that can't be found with just a switch on your guitar, you know?

KELLY: With his new album called "Look Now," Costello has done just that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. & MRS. HUSH")

COSTELLO: (Singing) But it was something I just couldn't understand until I slipped my finger into the band. Just need (unintelligible). Stare hard, and I don't look away.

KELLY: Costello of course has been around for decades, but one thing he did not want to make - an album that makes you think, remember this guy. Well, this record will remind you of when you liked him.

COSTELLO: You have to say that in the right voice. You say it like, remember this guy. Well, this record will remind you of when you liked him. You know, you sort of - it's immediately a bad proposition. But unfortunately that's a lot of the way both record companies and music magazines run the nostalgia business.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. & MRS. HUSH")

COSTELLO: (Singing) Mr. and Mrs. Hush.

KELLY: So no nostalgia on "Look Now," but Costello does return to familiar ground - songs full of rich characters loaded with desire and heartache. I asked him about one song in particular called "Stripping Paper."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRIPPING PAPER")

COSTELLO: (Singing) I got time on my hands. I'm just stripping paper.

She's discovered the unfaithful nature of her husband, and she tears away one layer of wallpaper to find a - the pencil mark on the wall where their daughter was measured...

KELLY: When they were happy, yeah.

COSTELLO: ...And, beneath it, like, maybe the less-splendid wallpaper that they once decorated and put up themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRIPPING PAPER")

COSTELLO: (Singing) Back then, we didn't have means for fine decorations. So we painted while mixing wine with flirtation.

KELLY: There's a whole short story in that song, which is something you're really good at.

COSTELLO: I think there are in a lot of songs. You know, I'm not trying to tell everybody what every line is supposed to mean because everybody will hear it differently, and somebody will say, well, I see something that happened to me in that. And there's no sort of instruction manual that goes with the song that tells you what to think or feel, you know? I think particularly with these songs, they're not songs of judgment at all. They just tell the story, and you take out of it what you take out of it depending on your own experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS COSTELLO SONG, "UNDER LIME")

KELLY: Tell me about the character Jimmie, who you have introduced us to before. And he makes a return performance in the song "Under Lime."

COSTELLO: In the album that I made in 2010, I had a song called "Jimmie Standing In The Rain," which was...

KELLY: Yeah.

COSTELLO: ...About a vaudeville singer trying to sing cowboy songs. So he was a fish out of water really there and then. So I've just painted a picture of this slightly pathetic character and left him abandoned on a railway station probably never to be seen again.

KELLY: Except he's back. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER LIME")

COSTELLO: (Singing) And the last time we saw him, he was out in the rain watching that train roll down the track. Now he's back in show biz trying to make a comeback.

I just decided that he would be found maybe in semi-obscurity. And now 20 years later - so it's in the mid-'50s - and he's on one of those panel shows that were so popular than both in the United States and in England where toffs and debutantes guess the identity of a mystery guest. So the song picks up backstage when he's in a dressing room with a young woman who's the production assistant on the show. So it's an account of this moment together where there's somebody wrestling with a conscience. It says in the last verse of the song, Jimmie was dreaming as she uncrossed her legs. He shuttered his eyes discreetly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER LIME")

COSTELLO: (Singing) ...Discretely. And he thought of...

And he thought of a drummer and considered a snare, but the beat of his heart said, don't even start.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER LIME")

COSTELLO: (Singing) Don't even start.

His conscience was bare. It's said, don't even dare. She's completely unaware.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER LIME")

COSTELLO: (Singing) She's completely unaware.

One of the things about popular music in the form is that you smuggle sometimes quite dark ideas past the listener with a bright tune. I truthfully originally set this story to a very much more steady and balladlike tune. And then I realized that it telegraphed the intentions of the song too much.

KELLY: You're trying to be a little more sly with it.

COSTELLO: The musical setting is bright and opens confidently. Then the song becomes more reflective as you hear of what's actually going on in the character's mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER LIME")

COSTELLO: (Singing) ...On the wall tick-tocked the time away. And the band starts to play.

KELLY: There was a curveball that you got thrown this summer as you were trying to put the finishing touches on this album. You were diagnosed with cancer.

COSTELLO: Well, to be really clear - not to jump in too abruptly, but I wasn't diagnosed with cancer. A malignancy which could have certainly become cancer was identified. And I was among...

KELLY: Thank you for clarifying.

COSTELLO: No, it is very, very important because - to me it is anyway because I have several friends, one of whom passed this summer after a very, very difficult but very brave fight against the illness. And I see the very big distinction between people who are living with a cancer which they are controlling through treatment and somebody like myself who's extraordinarily fortunate and is grateful for the expertise of technicians and doctors to have identified something which was conclusively addressed with a single surgery. To be honest, I wasn't going to trouble anybody with this story until I miscalculated what it takes to do my job and went back to work a little sooner than I should have done. Consequently, I had to cancel some shows, and I had to provide, you know, a coherent explanation for that.

KELLY: Well, this is why I was asking - was not to pry. And I do appreciate the clarification. But I knew you'd had to cancel some tour dates, and I know a lot of people have been wondering how you're doing.

COSTELLO: Well, I'm happy to tell you I'm right as rain. Things, challenges come up in life, and you just have to be grateful for the opportunity to do your work the best you can. And I'm - was very thankful for the good wishes I received, you know? But there's always somebody at the back saying, oh, I never liked him anyway; I hope he dies.

KELLY: (Laughter).

COSTELLO: You know, and that's true. You can look it up, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNWANTED NUMBER")

COSTELLO: (Singing) You should hear the things that they say about me. They're saying, she's no better than she needed to be. They don't know that he was kind and warm and tender. Soon it's going to be another unwanted number.

KELLY: Well, Elvis Costello, it has been quite the pleasure to speak to you, and I'm so glad you're on tour and - how did you put it? - right as rain.

COSTELLO: Right as rain.

KELLY: Thank you so much.

COSTELLO: Thank you very much. Good day to you now.

KELLY: Elvis Costello - his new album is called "Look Now." It's out tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNWANTED NUMBER")

COSTELLO: (Singing) How can I tell them? How can I explain? All the love that I never had... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.