Tonight, BBC2 is celebrating Elvis Costello's 20 years in the music business. Meanwhile, the songwriter best known for his caustic lyrics is considering making an album without words. Well, you might say, how typical

"I might make an ambient record," says Elvis Costello, "a record with no words on it." He's serious. Fifteen years ago, it would have been the last thing you would have expected from him, and for that reason it should be the first thing you'd expect from him now. Once known for the sheer quantity (and quality) of caustic lyrics per song, Costello is now in danger of becoming better known for eclecticism. The Independent speculated recently on whether he'd get round to producing a fugue for comb and paper. A Costello record lacking the principle ingredient that won him his fans in the first place, though - that would be even more perverse, and therefore perhaps even more in character.

This plan to dispense with lyrics came to light after Costello, 42, had been waxing lyrical on the subject of dance records ("It's jazz without the music, do you see?" Errr ...), and this stemmed from a chat about Bristol's dark lord of hip-hop, Tricky. It wasn't quite as linear as that, mind you. Costello goes from A to B via Z. Ask him a question and he talks and talks. Don't ask him a question and he talks and talks. Ask him a question and he will fool you into imagining that he is answering it. A minute later he will not have paused, but he will be on a completely different subject, and you will have no idea how he got there.

I ask about Prince. Both artists are on Warner Bros, but while Prince styles himself as a slave because the company won't release his records fast enough, the same company releases Costello's records all the time. Like some conversational escapologist, Costello is soon praising Chet Baker's last album, having dissected the myth of Bob Dylan in the meantime. At home I replayed the interview tape, and only then could I start to join the dots, to discern some direction to this apparently free association. It's a bit like listening to his records. They take time to unpack.

Starting tomorrow, Costello is releasing four different singles, one a week. The B-tracks, or whatever the correct CD terminology may be, are live recordings, demos and new songs, plus remixes and re-recordings by some trendy young things like Lush and, yes, finally, Tricky. So, what's this four-singles-in-a-month idea all about? Costello grins. "That's just the response I would have expected. Intense suspicion."

How the above question qualifies as intensely suspicious, I'm not sure. Costello says that he wants each single to be "fun", "disposable", "a magazine". And he fancies a wider audience for the songs from his last album, All This Useless Beauty: "I wanted to get some of the music on this record over to people via the medium of the single, as opposed to just putting an album out. Albums are a big investment nowadays. They're very expensive, too expensive. And radio's very rigid at the moment. There's a lot of careerism. People are worried about losing their jobs so they play what they think they should, rather than what's out there." To pre- empt any comparison between him and Status Quo, who this week failed in their attempt to sue Radio 1 for not playing their singles, he adds: "Older people are not allowed to speak up about it, because if they do they run the risk of looking ridiculous. There's a lot of cynical-minded 44-year- olds running the record industry and related media who really think the audience are morons, and they'll tell you that to your face. They think people like me are morons, as well, because we won't make what they think is a marketable product. I thought, let's just turn this on its head. Let's not go on a crusade, though," he adds, sensing that he may be about to enter Status Quo territory. "I'm not on a crusade. This is pop music, you know."

So over-eager is Costello to set down his motives that he ricochets between being concerned about his reputation, and worrying that he sounds too concerned. In the same breath as he tells you that he is a "cack-handed amateur" on guitar, he will remark that he should be on a list of the 100 best rock guitarists: "I as much put the Fender Jazzmaster back on the map as Hank Marvin put the Stratocaster on the map. I should be on the list just for that."

From the days when he kept a black book filled with his enemies' names, he has taken issue publicly with negative reviews. Why should he care what the critics think? "It's not so much that I care, but that if people ask me ... Every time I open my mouth in response to a question I think, I wish I hadn't said that, because it makes me seem tremendously defensive. It's only because of a sense of fairness I have. But it doesn't mean that I'm consumed with hatred about it all the time." He sounds defensive even as he explains that he's not as defensive as he sounds.

On the surface, though, the man who once claimed to be motivated only by guilt and revenge is in a playful mood. He plays with his cufflinks, plays with a two-litre bottle of Evian, plays with words. He describes remixing as "finger-painting for adults", and, pondering the other artists' remixes of his singles, stresses that "I'd put them out even if I didn't like them. It's only a record. My version won't be erased. You can't erase a record by doing a bad version of it." You can't help but wonder if he's trying to convince himself.

He speaks of the joys of the "random element", of "letting go and saying, OK, you do something with it" as someone who doesn't let go all that often. "There is a little bit of a feeling that everything has to be very studied, and I've done very organised things, things that require study and concentration. But recently I've taken ... I did that record with Bill Frisell [Deep Dead Blue]. It's a live record. We had one rehearsal. If you don't like it, don't buy it. What harm can it do?"

Behind this carefully emphasised levity is a need to deflate others' expectations before they get too great. Likewise, the seeming playfulness of his career choices has relieved the pressure to be what his listeners want him to be. By dodging from pop to country to classical, he not only indulges his own panoply of interests, and exercises his gargantuan talent, but also avoids being weighed down by his fans' wishes. He is acutely aware of what his admirers are hoping for, and finds the responsibility a burden. An album without lyrics means not being asked to match "Oliver's Army" and "Alison".

Look at the sleeve of 1989's Spike, which depicts the Beloved Entertainer's head trophy-mounted on a wall. Is this how Costello sees the performer/audience relationship? If so, it's no wonder that he has, at times, ducked behind pseudonyms - The Imposter, Napoleon Dynamite - and reverted to his real name, Declan MacManus (his father is the singer and former band-leader Ross MacManus). Not exactly suited to the flamboyant reinvention of David Bowie, he did create a new identity when he grew his long, rabbi's beard. (He has a beard again, now. It's what used to be termed designer stubble: in this case designed to give definition to a double chin.) When the beard came off, and his old band, the Attractions, came back for 1994's Brutal Youth, the critics thought he'd got over his wanderlust and found his way home to 1978. True to form, he went on to organise an arts festival for the South Bank Centre, from which there came a limited edition live album of sombre jazz ballads, the aforementioned Deep Dead Blue. Also last year was an album of obscure rock'n'roll covers, Kojak Variety. "It's just a funny little record," he says. "It's not supposed to stop traffic."

THERE are two lines that articles based on Elvis Costello interviews can take. The journalist can say that Costello was angrily aggressive and combative, or that he used to be angrily aggressive and combative, but isn't any more. You can find those articles published within days of each other, and which one is which depends on whether the journalist has been impolite about Costello's latest record or not. Perhaps because All This Useless Beauty is to my mind one of his most intelligent and accessible albums, he was affable and jokey last Thursday. We talk in a spacious common room upstairs at a north-west London recording complex. Costello lounges on a settee, feet on the coffee table, a pale green shirt unbuttoned at the neck and at the sleeves, revealing - and this is one of the more surprising things about meeting him - a heavily freckled chest and forearms. He seems happily stimulated by his work, and is a fount of irresistible quotes: "No, I don't write political songs myself. 'Tramp the Dirt Down' [his anti-Thatcher poison-pen letter] was just a love song, but in reverse." He regrets missing his doppelganger's appearance on Stars in Their Eyes ("People who saw it said it was amazing. Did you see Frank Skinner's [impersonation]? It was so accurate. I thought, Frank, what have you been doing in your bedroom all these years?"), and sends up his own well-deserved reputation as the hardest-working and best-connected man in showbiz: "I was going to sing in Burt [Bacharach]'s show on Friday, but I've got to go Paris instead. Kuh! What a life!"

Having just flown over from Dublin, near where he lives with his wife, former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, he spares the photographer and me an hour and a half before he gets down to the job of returning a favour and remixing a track for Tricky. After that it's off to France. Amsterdam the day after. Greece the day after that. And he still has time to release four times as many records as anyone else. "I don't release enough," he fires back. "You only get one life. You know, all I do is release records at the pace of a jazz musician or a classical musician. Certainly not the pace of a 'rock star'. Life's too short. You've got to go on and do things. I've won awards, I've had hit records. Why do I need to do that again? It's boring."

This pace overwhelms the public, though, and each record sells less than one by someone who leaves longer intervals. "But in total I sell as many. It's the record company who have to worry about their investment."

It's at this point that we talk - well, he talks - about Prince, Dylan and Baker, the unfairness of fans' demands, and his belief that even burnt- out veteran artists can come back with stunning work. And yet, I suggest, a writer can keep improving with age and experience, whereas a pop musician tends to hit a peak of fame and get worse. "That's because it's not a natural way to live," he says, speaking faster and more fervently on this topic than on any other. "Writers go off and think in isolation. When do musicians ever do that? The ones you're talking about from the Sixties didn't have a chance. That's why I'm trying to break down the way we're supposed to lead this life and do it differently. Even with the volume of work I do, I still have a life outside the business."

Somehow, there follows a favourable critique of the unpolished showmanship of Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett, compared with that of "slicker" stars. A few minutes later I steer us back to the conundrum of why the masters aren't masters any more. Mick Jagger, for instance, used to quest for new literary and musical influences. Now, a new Rolling Stones album flops out every few years that evinces no kind of advance at all.

"Maybe they've just started to value different things. Maybe they get their satisfa ..." he stops himself mid-pun, with a chuckle. "Well, maybe he's interested in lithographs or something. I don't know. He already gave a lot to people, and maybe he thought it wasn't worth the price it took. There are any number of reasons why people change. I know there are people who actually hate me for it. They hate me for not paying off on some sort of promise. They think that if I lined up all these pieces in one order and did this magical thing then everything would be all right. What for? What's important? To what end? Where would I be then that would be better than where I am now? I don't want to be 22 again. I'm not trying to sound like we did again."

After admitting that fans resent it when he changes course, he goes on to say that, in fact, they don't care. It's insignificant "wine-bar" chat. "I don't think that the general public have any time for that kind of thing. They're too busy worrying about their own lives, whether they're going to fulfil their own ambitions."

But fans care if their favourite musicians aren't what they used to be.

"No. They don't. They don't. They live their lives. They care for a moment. I've been to gigs so bad I've walked out. But I got over it, because I have my own life. I think it gets written about too drastically. These people are just musicians. They're not gods."

! 'Later Presents ... Live in Concert', a special edition celebrating Elvis Costello's 20 years in the music business, is at 8pm tonight on BBC2. Costello is currently on tour: Empire, W12 (0181 740 7474), Fri, 19 & 26 July; Liverpool Royal Court (0151 709 4322), 20 July; Glasgow Barrowlands (0141 552 4601), 21 July; Round House, NW1 (0171 344 0044), 27 July.

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