Since the Attractions got fed up with each other and disbanded in 1987, it's proved hard to pin Costello down. He's made one of his most widely acclaimed albums (Spike, 1989, which mixed fully wired-up contempt for Mrs Thatcher with a couple of breathtaking pop tunes written in collaboration with Paul McCartney) and an album which everyone seemed to take unusual delight in slagging off (Mighty Like a Rose, 1991). He's done television music and film work. He's learnt musical notation. He's been seen walking respectfully up the aisles at the Royal Festival Hall more frequently than he's been seen getting barged about in the foyer of the Hammersmith Apollo. And he's combined with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters, a sort of chamber pop album which showed his voice in a new light.
'I've always had more range than people thought I did,' he says, authoritatively. 'Because of the amount of words in my earlier songs, there were no sustained notes and no big leaps melodically, so it gave the impression of a very narrow range. Actually, the compass of it is on the wide side - an F two below middle C to top B . . .'
But all the while, some of us have found ourselves missing the Attractions, who were, at their best, one of the tightest outfits in pop, capable of screwed-up, punched-out live performances - after which Costello would have to lock himself alone in a room for 15 minutes, just to calm down, just to stop shouting.
In July, the four of them hit the Albert Hall, playing some of the old ones and some of the new ones from Brutal Youth (released 7 March), which is, to be exact, a Costello album on which the Attractions appear, rather than a Costello and the Attractions album. Nick Lowe, who produced Costello's earliest recordings, pitches up now and then on bass. Many of the tracks feature Costello and Attraction fragments: Costello with Pete Thomas the drummer; Costello with Thomas and Steve Nieve the keyboard player. But sometimes we get the full-set - Costello with Thomas, Nieve and Bruce Thomas the bassist - and the tone of the album is early-Costello: tough-talking lyrics, rough guitars in collision with noisy drums, and all taking place in a strictly No String Quartet zone.
Odds on a reunion had lengthened considerably in 1990 when Bruce Thomas published The Big Wheel, a funny but despairing book about life on the road. No names were named (the characters are called the Singer, the Drummer, the Keyboard Player etc) but it was clear that this was pretty much Thomas's diaries from 10 years on the road with the Attractions. It was clear, too, that the Bassist and the Singer spent a fair amount of time chipping and sniping at each other. The Bassist used to room with the Singer and once spent the best part of the night altering the flowered wallpaper with a biro so that the Singer would wake up to be confronted by an hallucination of screaming heads. There's a thin line, the book suggests, between matey larks and out and out torture.
'Well, I didn't exactly read it cover to cover,' says Costello, slightly guardedly. 'I read as much as I needed to.' And then, laughing, he tells a story about the video shoot for the new single, 'Sulky Girl', for which the band assembled on a set mocked-up to look like a trashed apartment. You could see a hotel sign on an outside wall, indicating that the room was several storeys up. And at one point, in a completely unscripted moment, as the track blared and the band jumped about with their instruments, Thomas took it upon himself to leap directly out of the window.
'I thought, 'What a symbolic act.' I think Bruce's book is pretty much like jumping out of the window. He had a miserable bloody time and I was having fun. But neither of us has a problem about that now. Of course, over in America, they expect us to go on Oprah together and say, 'Hey, man, I forgive you.' But that's the redemption culture for you.'
The first song for the new album was written during the week prior to the recording of The Juliet Letters, which Costello spent at Dartington in Devon, where the Brodsky Quartet are resident. So the new and the old mesh. He added the other songs later, back in Ireland in the music room at his house.
'I would work for about half an hour with the guitar cranked up really loud, and make a tape of just anything that came into my head. I did it in bursts. And then I listened to see if any of it was interesting. A lot of it was gibberish, just someone doodling.' But parts of it worked and the flavour of the new songs called out for a combo, putting him in mind of his old partners. The material led him back to the band.
Meanwhile, Tasmin Archer has had a hit with 'Shipbuilding', one of four Costello covers on a recent EP. ' 'Shipbuilding' is a very tough choice. It was written for Robert Wyatt and I was intimidated by his version when I went to record mine. I think our version works most of all because of the band's performance, because of Chet Baker and because of David Bedford's strings. which a lot of people aren't aware of. To hear a version which tried to make a pop chorus out of it, that didn't strike me as very achievable, though she sings it very well.'
And the former pop starlet Wendy James, going a stage further, has recorded an entire album of Costello songs, albeit ones written specially for her after she wrote a letter to Costello in a panic about her career. Costello (who has only met James once and briefly) obligingly knocked up a collection of numbers - many of them about a former pop starlet in a panic about her career. He didn't comment much at the time, but he will now: 'I think the producer made a bit of a bollix of it, to be honest. She did pretty well: she took the songs on, she seemed to take the humour of the songs in her stride. The songs appear on my publishing statements - they seem to have done respectably. Again, it's one of those records that people would like to think was a miserable failure, probably because of the people involved.'
And perhaps this was the fate of Mighty Like a Rose - universally agreed in the press to be his worst album ever, it went on to sell 600,000 copies. 'To be honest I think it was the beard,' he says. True enough, Costello appeared on the album's cover with the kind of bushy growth favoured by members of the Grateful Dead - looking grizzled. 'I think it freaked people out. Sudden change of appearance can sometimes be read - and it was portrayed this way in the press - as loss of mind or indication of a complete change of philosophy. It definitely sorted out the men from the boys. I really didn't think that things like beard and hair meant anything now - I didn't think I was in Take That, quite frankly.'Reuse content