In a July 1996 interview with Hot Press ( Dublin) Elvis says
( extract - scanned from cutting from print edition)
Some of the most exquisite songs on All This Useless Beauty appear to be floodlit with Catholic guilt. It takes different guises. An Old Testament phrase here, a reminder of how the sky is said to darken on Good Friday there. I could elaborate, but Elvis starts to look at me like I’m another German theory-meister. With a headshake and a smirk, he warns against taking his words at face value.
“A song like ‘Complicated Shadows’ was written in this semi-Biblical language because it was written for Johnny Cash,” he attests. “I could imagine him intoning these things with great gravity. But it’s not indicative of a particular frame of mind on my part. The private language of the songs is often different from the public language of the songs. It’s just the way I write. That Catholic thing is there in my head somewhere. And it’s far from vague. I can’t get it out, even with bleach.
“With Distorted Angel’ I was really thinking about children. Not child abuse but about children being made to feel guilty about a very innocent curiosity about their body. I didn’t want to write one of those greatly tortured Catholic songs. I don’t feel that way about it. It’s more of a hazy memory and it’s confused with a slightly erotic memory. The image of the distorted angel seems to fit it. As a kid, I remember being shown those holy pictures with a white-sheeted, strange, blonde person invisibly lurking in my room. I still find it quite spooky.
“I call ‘Poor Fractured Atlas’ an ‘epistle’ because it rhymes with ‘pistol in a kind of way that I like. It doesn’t really rhyme but it does when I sing it. I can make most words rhyme. I can make ‘mopin” and ‘Chopin’ rhyme. People say I often make clunky rhymes, but there’s humour in a bad rhyme. People often miss the point of humour in a bad rhyme.”
What are Elvis Costello’s religious beliefs? “None,” he sighs. “None that are formed into any coherent philosophy. I just have feelings of ease and unease about different things. I wouldn’t say that I can express it, really. I don’t feel the need to go to services of any kind. I go to funerals. I went to a wedding recently. I do all those landmark things that people tend to do in the sight of something, you don’t know what.
“You go to funerals to support people, to show to the living that you’re thinking about them and trying to help. Not necessarily because you believe in anything.”
Elvis is a fervent believer in the purgative powers of music, both in times of immediate grief and in those more difficult ensuing times when grief gives way to something empty and unnamable but no less distressing. At the aforementioned Meltdown Festival, he performed with an American gospel choir a version of ' That Day Is Done’, the song co written with Paul McCartney about the death of Costello’s grandmother. It was, he says, oddly exhilarating experience.
“That was a rare song among the ones we wrote which had a lot of personal detail in it,” Elvis explains. “It was about my grandmother’s funeral. After I had written ‘Veronica’ about her, this song was about not being able to attend her funeral, It was a very sad song to write. And Paul was very good about helping me to write this thing which was really bugging me and in making what I think is a very beautiful song out of it. He made a great record of it but I always wanted to cut it.
“To do it with these gospel guys was the right way for me to do it. It added a gravity to it, without it being maudlin. When they sing it, because they believe in this stuff which I don’t believe, it lifts you up to sing with them. They believe so much, and you’re standing among them, all singing together, it’s just fantastic. You are borne up by their belief.
“I have no problem listening to religious music of any kind, provided it isn’t actually oppressing me. Or nobody’s singing, like, ' Kill the woman!’, and there are quite a few religious songs which have that kind of tone. Debussy wrote Le Martyre De Saint Sebastien’ and he wasn’t a believer. He was inspired by the intensity of the poet’s words, and set those words very beautifully to music.
“That has happened quite a lot in the history of music, It’s not like I’m being post-modern about it or detached from it. I’m completely emotional when singing it because it is about spiritual things.
The gospel singers believe a coded thing, if you like. They believe their code, their doctrine, and I don’t. But I’m completely in sympathy with them on the ground of music which is the language that we do share. And the idiom that that song was written is a sort of gospel idiom, even though it’s not saying a gospel thing. It’s an experience, which is what the best music should be.”