BAM, June 30, 1996

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All This Useless Beauty

Elvis Costello

Richard C. Walls

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The above rating is for fans. If you tend to cast a jaundiced ear towards Costello's latter-day logorrhea latticework — all that useless verbiage — then make it a 2 or 2½. Somewhere in there. 'Cause the overall clarity of the album (this is one of the rare EC disks that doesn't really need a lyric sheet) is undercut by his still active tendency to creep into various related but only dimly lit lyrical corners and passageways, while the subject at hand — to the extent that it can be determined — languishes in the center of the room. In short, same old El.

Only it's a different Elvis due to, like I said, the clarity, which gives this album an overall melancholic if not moony feel, despite the presence of a few (we can't really call them rockers, can we?) let's say, archival exactitudes in acknowledgment of his ever-present gift for creative theft. Which means so much here sounds so familiar albeit so well used (after all, EC himself can quote chapter and verse of his different "borrowings," as he does in the recent Ryko reissue booklets, so this is hardly an accusation). Add to these outbursts one of his patented big ass torch songs ("It's Time"), grandiose in all regards, and you really can't say the set is entirely low-keyed. But that is the overall feel.

And even when this low-keyedness is direct, it can be deceptive, as on "Poor Fractured Atlas," which, at face, seems to be a nicely sneering song about the "men's movement" (if you don't know what that is, no room to explain). "Poor Fractured Atlas / Threw himself across the mattress / Waving his withering pencil / As if it were a pirate's cutlass / I'm almost certain he's trying to increase his burden / He said "That's how the child in me planned it / A woman wouldn't understand it." But here's the kicker: He sings it with the utmost sincerity, never cueing the listener in to his sarcastic intent.

Other highlights are the title cut, which is about Princess Di (because I say so — prove me wrong!); the Byrd-like "You Bowed Down" (covered several years ago by, appropriately, Roger McGuinn); the bogus bully boy posing of "Complicated Shadows"; and — what the hell! The whole album's a highlight. Unless you don't like Costello, in which case it kinda, but not too egregiously, sucks.

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BAM, June 30, 1996 - date confirmation needed


Richard C. Walls reviews All This Useless Beauty.



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