Somewhere along the way — well, actually, we can pinpoint the time: about 10 years ago — Elvis Costello went from being rock’s most prolific great recording artist to its least prolific. (No, we’re not counting Steve Perry in this.) That’s how we reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable numbers, one of them being that “Look Now” is his 31st album and the other being that he’s only released one full-length record since 2010. It’s not that he’s actually disappeared off the radar; it’s that he was effectively trading in studio time for exploring his existing repertoire on the road, where he was anything but MIA. His annual shows with the Imposters (the successor to his seminal backing band the Attractions) have been furious affairs in which Costello only seemed to be using his 60s to speed up, quite literally. For those 150 minutes or so a night, seeming to average about 150 bpm, the foursome could easily convince you they were the world’s greatest rock and roll band. So maybe a return to the studio meant they’d be trying to channel all that ridiculous energy onto a record?
Far from it. On “Look Now,” Costello and the Imposters are the world’s greatest pit band. That’s said knowing that it may come off as an insult to non-theater geeks, or to the contingent of fans who didn’t wait patiently all these years just to get what sound like excerpts from an unproduced Off Broadway musical. But it’s meant as a raging endorsement of Costello’s rage-free side. So many of his finest recordings, from “The Long Honeymoon” to “God Give Me Strength,” have had an intimacy to the music and a “We join this narrative already in progress” quality to the storytelling that could fool you into thinking they were show tunes, plucked from the second act of some particularly naturalistic piece of musical theater. In the case of “Look Now,” a few are just that.
Costello has spent much of his discography’s “missing years” working on yet-unproduced shows, including a collaboration with pal Burt Bacharach that would have shaped their “Painted From Memory” joint album into a full evening of drama. Rather than let those songs languish in the elusive search for investors, he’s pulled a couple for “Look Now,” and thrown in some other numbers he’s performed over the years but never recorded — like a two-decades-old co-write with Carole King — for what is in part a collection of what friends of the theater used to call trunk songs.
If you’re not a musicals guy or gal, or if you’re part of the vocal minority in the Costello fandom that thought the “Painted From Memory” album was a slow, overdramatic slog beaten down by too much vibrato, I’m probably not making “Look Now” sound like much fun. It is. The album is on the elegant side, to be sure, but it’s elegance with a distinct pulse, as the Imposters lean into soulful swing and Costello avoids the outright belting that you either loved or didn’t in the ’90s to do the most nuanced cooing and yelping of his career.
And if you’re not particularly attuned to his aptitude for pop opera, there are a dozen other influences here you’d notice first. A lot of them are from the 1960s. Motown-Tamla is the template for “Unwanted Number,” among the songs that have the performer embracing female background vocals for one of the very few times of his career. “I Let the Sun Go Down,” a breezy tune about the decline of the British empire, features strings and French horn and has strong whiffs of both Ray Davies and the Beatles, as if Costello wanted to prophetically pay homage to the recently deceased Geoff Emerick, who worked on some of the baroque stuff by the Fabs as well as Elvis’ own “Imperial Bedroom.” “Suspect My Tears” is vintage ’60s easy-listening-R&B at its catchy finest, fooling you into thinking you’re listening to a weirdly paranoid lost Bobby Goldsboro song before Costello’s falsetto reminds you he’s a Bobby Womack guy through and through. In the liner notes, he mentions his satisfaction when someone in the studio invoked the Fifth Dimension, and he wryly refers to a vocal chorale he formed with his late-middle-age associates as “the
Meanwhile, the still-living specter of Bacharach hangs over some of the songs he had nothing to do with, like “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me,” which threatens to turn into “I Say a Little Prayer” at any moment. Costello can certainly match or even outdo Bacharach when it comes to weird build-ups of pop chord progressions that you don’t entirely wrap your brain around until the fourth listen. To that end, you could read even the songs that don’t sound anything like his mentor as a kind of Burt response.
Lyrically, Costello is less about wordplay these days. You’ll find some of that in the way he makes the title of “Under Lime” allude to cocktail garnishments and burial practices. But the 2018 Costello is more into poetry than punnery, and these 12 songs are full of moving moments, even though they’re nearly all character sketches. It’s his most female album ever; at least five of the songs are narrated by a woman character. “Unwanted Number” (assignment writing from the 1994 “Grace of My Heart” soundtrack he’s just gotten around to recording himself) is from the point of view of a pregnant teenager vacillating between boldness and shame. Two songs from the stalled Bacharach musical, “Don’t Look Now” and “He’s Given Me Things,” catch a painter’s subject in the first flush of flattery over serving as a muse and her eventual return to his studio after she’s become a wealthy man’s bride. In “Stripping Paper,” a divorcée scrapes off wallpaper, exposing the pencil growth charts of an estranged daughter and the old patterns against which she and her ex threw themselves in the throes of passion. Any of these songs beg to be heard sung by a woman, in or out of the theater. Getting to hear them sung by one of rock’s most sensitive and passionate male vocalists isn’t bad, while we wait.
If you like guitars, of course, you are SOL — or at least if you want to hear the garage-y sound that Costello does so well on tour and was doing on record as recently as the 10-year-old “Momofuku.” Pianist Steve Nieve is the driver here, and not even the Nieve of Vox-crazed days but a nimble, controlled accompanist; Pete Thomas, a brilliantly bashy drummer, is doing a lot of tasteful rim-shot percussion. But ornate doesn’t have to mean fussy. The guys who made “Pump It Up” merit even more of our admiration for having spent these decades learning how to masterfully dial it down. And Costello? It’s so funny to be seeing him, after all this time, making a great cake of an album that doesn’t really sound that much like any of the 30 before it.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters
Producers: Sebastian Krys and Costello