Following Elvis Costello's career is a bit like watching a chaos pendulum; you know there is a fulcrum around which it all moves, but the next beat is as random as the last. Since the turn of the millennium, Elvis has recorded Southern gothic concept records, classical piano ballads, twenties-style Americana, and one more traditional "rock" album in between. You never know where he is going next, which means even if you didn't like the last stop, there is always reason for hope the next one will be more up your alley. I will admit that his last two records, which mined the style of early American acoustic composition, were not my cup of tea. There was enough on there I could enjoy, but they are records I can't consider even in the top half of his work.
But as always, Elvis is moving in a new direction again with Look Now. This isn't the return to raw rock 'n' roll Momofuku was, but instead points back most directly to Imperial Bedroom, the most baroque pop album of his career. Good or bad, that means one thing it cannot be is boring.
Look Now is a deceiving title, because the record looks backward more than anything else. Elvis serves up songs that have been in the making for years, revisits collaborations from yesteryear, and even continues on the story of a character from National Ransom. That occurs on the opening "Under Lime," where the Depression-era Jimmie winds up in the television age, captured in the shift from a bare-bones acoustic song in his first starring role, to a technicolor arrangement this time out, with bubbling bass, strategic pianos, and a horn section for good measure. It's a more upbeat version of "The Long Honeymoon," throwing in a few tricks from the When I Was Cruel era.
For large stretches, though, the album that pops to mind most of all is North. That album of soft and classical piano torch songs is one that never gained much attention or acclaim, but the songwriting lessons from then echo throughout this new record. "Stripping Paper" has some added adornment, but the thrust of the melody, and the circular way it winds around a hook that doesn't exist is straight out of those sessions. The songs that fall into that category, including the three written alongside Burt Bacharach, are the slow beauty that are supposed to show the softer side of the beast.
With his band The Imposters in tow, the best numbers are the ones where the band are allowed to flex their muscles. "Under Lime" and "Unwanted Number" have snap and sparkle, as well as vocal and instrumental bits that stand out and hook you in. The piano line alone on the latter is the kind of simple motif a thousand songs could be built around. In those few notes, Steve Nieve provides more of an anchor than Bacharach's compositions ever do. There is certainly something to be said for polish and beauty, but no amount of make-up can hide a crooked smile.
A few years back, Elvis had hinted he was done recording. In a weird way, this album both justifies and refutes that stance of his. Because this is a record with some great moments and energy captured in the performances, it would be a shame to think Elvis would never go back into a studio to put his music to tape. On the other hand, these songs continue his shift deeper and deeper into what I call "songwriter mode," where the songs are obviously written for the enjoyment of the author, and not the audience. There are too many songs here that come and go without making a vital musical statement. A song like "Photographs Can Lie" offers nary a piano or vocal line that matters, even though I'm sure there is great satisfaction on Elvis' part in bringing the song to life.
Ultimately, Look Now suffers from the same fate as Imperial Bedroom did all those years ago. By trying to patch together so many sounds and approaches, there isn't much connective tissue to hold the entire thing together. Flawed though it might have been, Momofuku was an album that knew exactly what it wanted to do, and gave us a record that captured The Imposters as the band they are. Look Now is half an Imposters record, and half an Elvis genre experiment. It's interesting to hear the twists and turns it takes, but it isn't satisfying the way the great Elvis Costello albums are.
I'm looking now, but I'm not seeing what I hoped for.