http://www.spinner.com/2010/10/05/elvis ... al-ransom/Elvis Costello Seeks Hope and Beauty in the Music on His 'National Ransom' Album
Oct 5th 2010
by Steve BaltinThroughout his more than 30-year career, Elvis Costello is one of the few artists of whom it can be said he has truly done it all, continuing going wherever the music takes him. His superb latest collection, 'National Ransom,' finds the music and producer T Bone Burnett taking him back in time, exploring seemingly anachronistic "1920s rock 'n' roll" on 'Slow Dance With Josephine' and to 1919 on 'You Hung the Moon,' all with the astute eye, sharp lyrical play and daring that has made him one of the most respected and revered artists of the past three decades. Spinner spoke with the singer/songwriter about the new album, finding hope through music in troubled times and why no artist can make an album as good as Stevie Wonder's 'Innervisions.' Congratulations on 'National Ransom.' I love how the music from the past fits in. One of the songs I highlighted was 'The Spell That You Cast,' and to me it had kind of a rockabilly, almost Eddie Cochran feel to it.
When rock 'n' roll first kind of happened, it was because some people jammed together a couple of styles that nobody thought should work, like Elvis Presley had put together rhythm & blues and bluegrass, and he ends up with a rock 'n' roll version of 'Blue Moon of Kentucky'; or Ray Charles does secular lyrics and gospel music, and he gets soul. So the strongest stuff has always been from people kind of mixing up the chemicals, and that's all we're still doing. We're not making any great claims to making an innovation here. But 'Spell You Cast' is a fun tune to play. It has a double bass and drums, but it has a mandolin and an electric tenor guitar. I thought it had a little bit of rock 'n' roll to it, it has a little bit of a kind of mod thing going on in there.
It's interesting how you talk about mixing because there are so many elements people now have to draw upon to create sounds.
That's right, we should be in the best time. You got no excuse for it being dull and playing the same four changes because you can listen to anything all over the world. Look at the Good, the Bad and the Queen: you've got Damon Albarn from Blur bringing in that sort of pop-song sense that he has from that group, and it's got Paul Simonon [of the Clash] on bass playing a punky reggae, and he's got Tony Allen on drums and got an Afrobeat thing going on in the rhythm. That's a truly modern band. Not saying that's better than everything else; it just shows you the way you can construct things now. It isn't the way I do it, necessarily, but I do dig it when people do that. You get stuck in any one church for too long, it's probably not gonna be healthy for the way you move music forward. [But] you constantly see bands make success and then five minutes after they've made that success they want to change it in some way, which is legitimate to them, but it takes a little trust on the part of the listener. Radiohead, there's a good example: They had some big hits and then they made records that are very crushed and use a lot of sonics that come from dance music, and people were horrified when those records came out first. Now you listen to them and they sound great.
Going back to the Good, the Bad and the Queen; you say that's not how you would do it.
I'm not picking things from such extreme worlds as Damon is, but it's the same sort of idea. And lots of younger groups that I hear, when you read interviews with them they'll be referencing records from the '60s, from the '80s, last week, and trying to combine them. And that's all I did when I started out. Obviously, I knew the music I'd grown up with from the '60s and I did know music from further back in time 'cause I was around it in my parents' record collection. And also, almost as soon as I got started I had success, therefore I was in pop music along with whoever you're talking about, the Clash and the Jam and everybody else, the Police, the Pretenders. So we listened to each other's records and probably there was a degree of competition at that stage. Now I don't think I'm in competition with anybody, I don't want to be, least of all with myself.Is that something you to attribute to being older and more mature, or because with the success you've had you have nothing left to prove?
Well, I think also when you have the benefit of surprise, you were part of a new idea and then after a while you become somebody that they know, and then what are you gonna be known for? Are you gonna be known for repeating yourself or are you gonna be known for doing different things? And I'll take the risk of being known for doing different things, even if it means sometimes you lose some of your audience because you do something that matters to you it doesn't necessarily have to matter to everyone else. I'll take the chance.
The two people that come to my mind that have followed a similar trajectory as you in terms of being able to move about so freely are Tom Waits and Neil Young, who are both peers of yours. But as you've moved about in music, are there people you've looked to as examples you've admired?
Rock 'n' roll's become such a self-contained history and it was seen as a revolutionary force, and, in truth, a lot of rock 'n' roll is very conservative and predictable. Therefore, people like Neil, who, of course, I've always admired, and I'm the same as everybody, I don't like every record he puts out to the same degree, but I love the fact that he really throws himself into it. He doesn't do anything half-heartedly; if he's doing a full-on white-noise record it's a full-on f---ing white-noise record. And then he'll be doing an acoustic record and it'll be beautifully played. I know Neil less well, but Tom I've known 25 years, maybe longer, 30 years. I first met him, I don't want to say we were friends back then, but I used to stay at the hotel he lived in on Santa Monica Boulevard [In L.A.], so the first time I met him he was just at home. I can't say I befriended him then, but I've known him a long time and I've watched the way he has followed what he really believes, and it's inspiring.
All those people are inspiring, but you look back further into pop music before things were seen in terms of rebellion, Frank Sinatra changed his style a bunch of times. Bing Crosby started out some kind of jazz singer, then he was a movie actor, and then by the end of his career people saw him as your favorite uncle who plays golf and wore a hat. Louis Armstrong, one of the most revolutionary musicians in the history of music, ever, and at the end of his career he's seen as some sort of likable guy that sings 'Wonderful World' and a lot of people don't know anything about how much music comes out of him. You just take these really famous examples and then you think of all the other people with much smaller careers that are more like the scale of my life, and you gotta look at those people.
This idea of change wasn't invented by rock 'n' roll. Marvin Gaye wanted to be Nat 'King' Cole, then he makes a bunch of R&B records for Motown, then he makes 'What's Going On.' Stevie Wonder's the same: He's a harmonica protégé making instrumental records, then he's a great singer at 13 and then he makes 'Music of the Mind' and 'Innervisions' -- it's unbelievable! These are the kind of leaps, any time you feel yourself hemmed in, you just gotta look to the best stuff and hope that you've got the inspiration to go even a little bit to where they've managed. Nobody can make a record as good as Stevie Wonder made in those days. I don't think so, anyway; nobody can make a leap like that now.
You talked about how both Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby were perceived at the end of their careers. At this point, albeit nowhere near the end of your career, how do you see yourself being perceived?
I don't spend a lot of time worrying; there's way too much music. I think one of the reasons I say I find it hard to imagine anybody doing anything as astounding as 'Innervisions' now is because there seems to be a lot of caution based on self-consciousness now. Although a lot music appears to be dangerous, you can see one of the thoughts in the making of it is, "How do I look doing this?" Because of the focus and the fact people are commenting all the time before the music's even finished, people are telling you it's no good, one of the unhealthy things about the ubiquity of commentary around music today is that so much of it uninformed.
The illusion is that art is a democracy, and it isn't: It's a benevolent dictatorship. The artistic idea is one person or one group of people determining to go a certain way, and if you don't take people with you in your audience you're doing it for yourself and it can still be valid. But it isn't a democracy: You're not making great music by committee with everybody in your audience sort of pitching in ideas of which way it should go. Plenty of people can tell you what you should be doing, but very few people can do it. Lots of people can point at what's wrong with something, but they can't actually create anything. So there's no end result off all that hot air; it's just hot air. And you gotta go with what you believe, and I don't consequently sit around wondering that much about the way people are seeing it in the long term. I'm too busy just doing it.When you hear the finished record of 'National Ransom,' what do you take from it?
I take it from that we're in a moment that we've been in before in many other circumstances, that people are all sharing the experience of song. We're going over the edge of a cliff maybe here. I think the humanity in the characters, all the little struggles that are described in these songs, I always hope that we'll take it out that really the best that we can find within ourselves in these times is not the appeal of fanaticism, intolerance -- that's the truth of it. That's why I think songs are worth singing and worth hearing and being together. That's why the record ends like it does, with 'Voice in the Dark,' which is a hopeful song. So there has to be something better within us than all of that. I'm looking for that, even the smallest bit of light in the picture in all of these songs. I'm trying to find some beauty in all of this, otherwise it would truly be intolerable. There wouldn't be any reason for us to make any more records or sing any more songs.