The en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Elvis Costello

The Herald Magazine - - Arts OPINION - KEITH BRUCE

WHEN Elvis Costello was at the height of his early pop star­dom, he veered off-piste to Nashville to make the poorly re­viewed, but nonethe­less hit-yield­ing and en­dur­ingly pop­u­lar, 1981 record Al­most Blue, the sleeve of which car­ried the sticker: “WARN­ING! This al­bum con­tains coun­try & western mu­sic and may pro­duce a rad­i­cal re­ac­tion in nar­row minded peo­ple”.

It has al­ways been thus with Costello, so that keep­ing up with his ca­reer tra­jec­tory has been an of­ten ex­haust­ing but al­ways re­ward­ing un­der­tak­ing. Whether on his own, with his reg­u­lar back­ing group or in­creas­ingly in col­lab­o­ra­tion with other great mu­si­cians he ad­mired, Costello was for­ever turn­ing a new page and set­ting off in a fresh di­rec­tion. So the im­me­di­ately as­ton­ish­ing thing about the disc he re­leased yes­ter­day, Look Now, his first of new ma­te­rial in five years and the first with his own band in a decade, is that it sounds ex­actly like an Elvis Costello al­bum.

For devo­tees such as my­self, that comes as a bit of a shock – ini­tially even a slight dis­ap­point­ment. The UK’s great­est liv­ing song­writer tak­ing us some­where we have al­ready been? What’s that all about?

Costello’s own ex­pla­na­tion is that re­vis­it­ing some of his older ma­te­rial – and there have been shows fo­cused on his de­but My Aim is True and, more re­cently, the Ge­off Em­er­ick-pro­duced Im­pe­rial Be­d­room – in the com­pany of The Im­posters, set­tled in his mind that his band de­served to be cap­tured on record at the top of their form. That will be a part of the rea­son, but an at­ten­tive lis­ten to Look Now sug­gests a deeper agenda.

Its open­ing track, Un­der Lime, con­tin­ues the story of al­ter-ego vaude­ville star Jim­mie, who was “Stand­ing in the Rain” on 2010’s Na­tional Ran­som. The cho­rus runs “It’s a long way down from that high horse you’re on/It’s a long way back as you cover your tracks” and read­ers of Costello’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Un­faith­ful Mu­sic and Dis­ap­pear­ing Ink, may recog­nise the tone. Three tracks fur­ther on, the home-DIY metaphor of Strip­ping Pa­per is an ex­plicit ref­er­ence to the process of re­veal­ing lay­ers of per­sonal and fam­ily his­tory. The fact that lyrics here also em­ploy the sort of word­play that an­noyed some peo­ple on his early records (“he thought of a drum­mer/And con­sid­ered a snare” puns Un­der Lime) matches a mu­si­cal pal­ette that is fes­tooned in colours that have shone through past tri­umphs. There is lit­tle au­di­ble coun­try mu­sic in­flu­ence on the sound of Look Now, but plenty from the six­ties pop/soul that was the foun­da­tion of the al­bums on ei­ther side of Al­most Blue. In fact two of the song­smiths of that era, Burt Bacharach and Ca­role King, have co-writ­ing cred­its on new songs here. The King col­lab­o­ra­tion, Burnt Sugar is So Bit­ter, is also gar­landed with a clas­sic Steve Nieve pi­ano fig­ure, in­ter­wo­ven with a horn line that in­stantly re­calls Im­pa­tience, the su­perb bonus track that con­cludes Costello’s 2003 love-let­ter to his Cana­dian wife Diane Krall, North.

While I Let the Sun Go Down echoes late stu­dio tri­umphs by The Bea­tles, as engi­neered by the re­cently de­ceased Em­er­ick, the Bacharach-Costello songs are two of the al­bum’s briefer vi­gnettes and slightly out­shone by Sus­pect My Tears, which may be Costello’s own best tilt at adding to the cat­a­logue he first paid trib­ute to in his late 70s cover of I Just Don’t Know What to Do With My­self.

With this new set, Costello has made an al­bum that is a per­sonal take on pop’s cur­rent ob­ses­sion with its own back pages, per­haps partly fu­elled by the in­ti­ma­tion of mor­tal­ity that was his own re­cent health scare. The al­bum’s ti­tle is not Don’t Look Now, which is one of the new Bacharach col­lab­o­ra­tions it con­tains, but the more pos­i­tive and for­ward-fac­ing Look Now, rem­i­nis­cent of Costello’s in­struc­tion to his male fans when he was forced to can­cel some Euro­pean dates ear­lier this year: Gen­tle­men, get your­selves checked.

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