Now that Declan MacManus has had his joke on America and retained his nom de guerre, Elvis Costello, he throws us another curve by calling himself Napoleon Dynamite on his new album. Only on the lyric sheet and under his photo, however; he's still MacManus where the copyrights roam, and Costello in the record racks.
No wonder the cast of characters in these 11 songs are alternately confused and bemused, as Costello limns elusive imagery with conclusive images. It may be hard to tell exactly what he's getting at in "Battered Old Bird," with its rooming house full of confused, possibly psychotic characters, but it's disturbingly easy to picture the milquetoast nutcase who "swallowed sleeping pills like dreams / with a bottle of sweet sherry that everything redeems."
The songs' melodies, like their lyrics, stretch and retract; they meander from jungle-drum openings through electric twangs to found sounds — some mellifluous, some jarring. There are no three-minute pop songs. Nothing here, in fact, is liable to be heard over any radio station not programmed by James Joyce. At times, as in "Tokyo Storm Warning," the free-associative silly seriousness seems like Dylan-meets-Zappa. Other times, as in a soliloquy with bare musical accompaniment ("I Want You"), Costello recites more than sings, his frustration — about what? — rising and falling. At yet other times, as when Costello's nasal vocals are joined by wife Can O'Riordan's dulcet sweetness the chocolate covers up the taste of blood. Maybe that's what Costello's whole lecture-cum-poetry-session is all about.