If Pete Townshend hadn't included the words "hope I die before I get old" in a song, the young Elvis Costello probably would have. At first blush, the angry young man of New Wave may not have seemed like a candidate for graceful maturity. But underneath his rage was an adventurous yet classic sense of melody and an intelligent and witty knack for wordplay — all the ingredients for a lasting artist of true substance.
Costello has been turning out one fine disc after another in recent years, all without the fanfare of his early work. All This Useless Beauty, produced by legendary Geoff Emerick, is yet another one, a conceptual flipside to his Kojak Variety covers album (this time, Costello sings songs he wrote for other acts), and a continuation of his reunion with The Attractions begun on 1994's Brutal Youth. Although the team may never again come up with something as awesome as it did 10 years earlier on Imperial Bedroom, they recall that album's best qualities here, albeit with a subtler touch.
It's a tack that suits much of Useless Beauty's material, songs Costello can lend his thin yet surprisingly supple voice to with a crooner's elan. Listen to the way he caresses the refrain in the title track and you'll hear the same slant on wonderfully sophisticated songs like "Little Atoms," "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone" and "I Want To Vanish." Thanks to Steve Nieve's splendidly sympathetic keyboards, the once-raucous Attractions offer a sweet and soft touch. There are also tastes of their trademark pop-rock aggression on "Shallow Grave" and the Byrds-ish "You Bowed Down" (written for Roger McGuinn), but the bulk of this album is the sound of Costello growing old artfully, as the best angry young men should.