Elvis Costello’s goal remains true, 32 albums in his pocket

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

Elvis Costello burst onto the music scene in 1977 with the album my aim is true and songs like “Alison” that established him as a powerful new voice in rock. From then on, he released album after album, decade after decade, becoming a pop music institution. Now Costello has released his 32nd studio album, The Boy Named Soa kaleidoscopic journey through many sounds and styles that he and his band, the Imposters – Steve Nieve on organ, Davey Faragher on bass and Pete Thomas on drums – have experienced over the years.

The album’s title track features slow tension through lush arrangements. Also present are soulful ballads (“Paint the Red Rose Blue”) and plenty of classic rock and roll references, such as on “The Death of Magic Thinking,” which channels a timeless beat from Bo Diddley into its thumping beat. Pop-enabledNate Sloan spoke to Elvis Costello about his open-minded style and open lyrics, his high-profile defense of Olivia Rodrigo and why he refused to work with Adele.

Nate Sloan: One of my favorite moments on your new album is the song “Magnificent Hurt”. You play a guitar solo so dissonant and raw that it adds a layer of depth and complexity to an already rich song.
Elvis Costello: It’s a good example of putting your fingers anywhere and making it work. How could you have a song called “Magnificent Hurt” and play a beautiful melodic solo? It wouldn’t make sense. I don’t often take solos. There are two on this record, which is actually two more than almost any other record I’ve done. Granted, I haven’t played a solo in 20 years on a record. I don’t really consider myself an expressive guitarist. But this one is descriptive, right?

This approach of simply keeping your ears open can be liberating and lead you into a whole new shape. The territorial nature of it can be very strange, when people will say, “I invented this thing that was never imagined!” Well, it depends on how much music you’ve listened to, because for me, I’ve heard it many times.

Speaking of the “territorial” nature of modern music, when Olivia Rodrigo released her album Sour and the track “Brutal” in 2021, many listeners commented on a perceived similarity between this song and 1978’s “Pump It Up” This year’s model. You responded with a feeling quite consistent with what you have just described.
I don’t often participate in online dialogue, but this took me by surprise. I had heard Olivia Rodrigo’s first single [“Driver’s License”] and I had seen her perform on a TV show and it sounded like she was telling a true story that happened, and that was really good. She had a lot of presence. I was maybe curious to hear the sequel, and the sequel was the album. And then I started seeing my name, which was unexpected.

So when I saw this letter from this young man who was outraged on my behalf, I wrote to him personally and said, “That’s fine with me, Billy. That’s how rock and roll works. You take the shattered pieces of another thrill and make it into a whole new toy. That’s what I did.”

To me, to argue with Olivia Rodrigo floating a few lines over a beat that’s been shared in a whole bunch of songs before and since would be just silly.

Your songs have had a remarkable longevity in our culture. Would you work with a younger artist like Adele?
I don’t know if she knew about it, but a long, long time ago I was approached by a music publisher to consider collaborating with an artist who had made a record as a teenager and who was just trying to make his second record and they thought it would be a good idea if I collaborated on it.

My honest answer was that it felt wrong to me, in my late 50s, to try to imagine what the reality was for a 20-year-old. There’s a difference between me regarding The Boy Named So what i remember – what i see, what i held in my heart, what i learned about the next experience in my life and in the lives of all the people i love and the people i am with shared time – with someone I had never met. That would be extremely presumptuous. And that’s how I does not have succeed in writing any Adele record.

Now, of course, you know, if I had ever told my editor this was happening, they would have taken me out and shot me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.