Accidents will happen — but new albums won’t. That seems to have been Elvis Costello’s attitude in recent years, as his once-prolific recording career ground to a deliberate halt in favor of a determined focus on themed tours. But come October 12, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will return with “Look Now,” his first album of any kind in five years and first with his regular touring band, the Imposters, in a decade.
The unveiling of the 12-song collection’s contents coincides with the digital release of two preview tracks from the set: “Under Lime,” the album’s leadoff track, and “Unwanted Number,” a song he wrote for the 1996 Allison Anders movie “Grace of My Heart” but never committed to record until now. Both tracks are available immediately with pre-orders of “Look Now” or for streaming. “Unwanted Number” additionally has a lyric video (watch it below), for fans looking to follow its narrative about a teenager dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and memories of incest.
The announcement of the album — Costello’s first for the Concord label — makes no mention of the health scare he revealed just three weeks ago. On July 6, he announced that he was immediately canceling the final six dates of a European tour to better recover from a recent surgery that had “defeated” a “small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy.” The 63-year-old singer, who was doing full-length band shows right up through the eve of the cancellation announcement, is forging ahead with plans to return to the road Nov. 2, when he and the Imposters kick off a North American tour that runs through Dec. 4.
“I knew if we could make an album with the scope of ‘Imperial Bedroom’ and some of the beauty and emotion of ‘Painted From Memory,’ we would really have something,” Costello said in a statement. The “Painted From Memory” association comes clearer with news that three of the tracks were co-written with that album’s featured co-star, Burt Bacharach; the legendary pop composer plays piano on two of their three new collaborations.
But the “Imperial Bedroom” comparison comes more readily to mind with the two newly unveiled tracks, both of them up-tempo numbers that downplay Costello’s guitar in favor of Steve Nieve’s piano and the rhythm section of Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher. In lieu of a chorus, “Under Lime” features a sprightly, recurring brass-and-woodwinds interlude that indeed sounds like something right out of “Bedroom,” his 1982 foray into a more elaborate production style. Meanwhile, “Unwanted Number” features female backing vocals, something Costello has rarely employed since 1983’s “Punch the Clock” — aside from the Bacharach album — but brought back for last year’s full-album “Imperial Bedroom” tour.
Some of the new song titles may be familiar to the most obsessive Costello cultists, as at least half of them have been performed at least once in concert over the years. Aside from “Unwanted Number,” the oldest of these may be a co-write with Carole King, “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter,” which, according to a since-removed lyric page on King’s website, was registered in 1997, leading fans to wonder if it, too, was intended for “Grace of My Heart.” Fans have clamored to get a studio recording of “Burnt” ever since he played it a handful of times on a Costello/Nieve duo tour in 1999, and now, they’re finally getting their wish.
But even some of the songs that were previously debuted in concert may have undergone substantial rewrites on the way to the studio. That seems to be the case with “Under Lime,” which Costello played a substantially different version of a few times on his “Detour” solo tour in 2017. It still describes a sort of sexually charged “My Favorite Year” scenario — under cover of what he’s called a “sequel” to the 2010 song “Jimmie Standing in the Rain.” This new instant-grat track moves the action decades forward from the 1930s setting in which Jimmie, then a struggling cowboy singer, first appeared. In “Lime,” a more successful and now fading Jimmie is booked on a nostalgic TV show and has a tryst in the green room with a young production assistant. Costello’s nearly six-minute epic narrative is full of characteristic wit: “Would you kindly pass that pill/And allow me to just dictate my dying will,” the older character tells the younger woman, as they amuse themselves by briefly bridging the generation gap backstage.
Costello’s co-producer for “Look Now” was Sebastian Krys, who won the producer of the year award at the Latin Grammys in 2007 and 2015. “Sebastian was there to make sure only the essential notes got onto the record, whether it was a fuzz-tone guitar or jazz bassoon,” Costello said in his announcement.
A 16-song deluxe version of the album concludes with “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way,” the song he wrote last year for the end credits of the Annette Bening-starring “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” a Bacharach-flavored ballad many felt was unjustly denied a best song Oscar nomination.
When Variety spoke with Costello as he was promoting the movie theme last November, he seemed readier to re-enter the album-making world than he had been in years, while still characterizing it as a possibly outmoded rat race. “Well, somebody’s got to want to make them,” he said, when asked why he wasn’t recording albums or signed to a label at that point. “That was the right decision, to sign off from that particular cyclic continuum of record/tour/record/tour… That doesn’t mean there won’t be any more records. It just means there better be a good reason to make ‘em… You should never assume you have either an obligation or a right to record. There are lots of young, great artists whose moment is (now). But if somebody wants to make a record on us, we’ve got lots of material.”
Costello’s last album was 2013’s “Wise Up Ghost,” a co-billed collaboration with the Roots that featured notable hip-hop touches in the conception and production. Prior to that, his last solo album was 2010’s acoustically oriented, T Bone Burnett-produced “National Ransom,” which followed a raging final bow for a while with the Imposters on 2008’s “Momofuku.”
These distinctions become important if you don’t want to get on Costello’s bad side on Twitter, where his late-‘70s feistiness can still rear its head. Earlier this week, a leak about the new album led a music website to tweet about Costello’s “first rock album in ten years!” “It has nothing to do with rock,” he fired back, “unless you mean Edinburgh rock. Which is delicious.” (That’s a traditional Scottish snack.) “If you’d had a little patience you could have waited until Friday for a song or two. Instead you’re just plain wrong… It’s easy to be quick. It’s not so easy to be smart.”
“Look Now” track list:
- Under Lime
- Don’t Look Now
- Burnt Sugar is So Bitter
- Stripping Paper
- Unwanted Number
- I Let the Sun Go Down
- Mr. & Mrs. Hush
- Photographs Can Lie
- Dishonor the Stars
- Suspect My Tears
- Why Won’t Heaven Help Me?
- He’s Given Me Things
Deluxe Special Edition Tracks:
13. Isabelle In Tears
14. Adieu Paris (L’Envie Des Étoiles)
15. The Final Mrs. Curtain
16. You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way