Early on, Elvis Costello's apparently boundless talents as a songwriter and performer seemed likely to guarantee him a permanent home in the rock 'n' roll wing of Mount Olympus, maybe next to Bruce Springsteen. But Costello's reach has mostly exceeded his grasp. Every time he's approached mass appeal, he's fallen smoldering back to earth — Icarus in Buddy Holly glasses.
Costello was a middle-class solo artist who didn't really belong on the British punk-rock team but was too innovative to be lumped in with anyone else. His trick, the one that made him punk, was to pit bitingly ironic lyrics against catchy pop tunes. The music on his debut, My Aim Is True, was unornamented country rock (provided by an American band called Clover that included future pop prole Huey Lewis on harmonica), but the lyrics were another matter. Costello's whiplike wordplay had few antecedents and no peers in rock, and it sliced through emotional cruelty and social stupidity with a wit that made self-pity seem like a virtue. A string of underground hits made him as big a star as a punk was allowed to be.
As punk crumbled, Costello continued to build new and unforgettable tropes from the same old cliches — often by soldering them together end to end — and by the time he made Trust (1981), his criminally underrated fifth album, he was constructing songs that truly seemed to belong in a genre of their own. But the popularity he yearned for and deserved eluded him; his rejection by mainstream America became an insoluble lump of resentment that would surface again and again on subsequent albums with titles like King of America, Spike, the Beloved Entertainer, and the new All This Useless Beauty.
It didn't help matters when, on a U.S. tour for his third album, Armed Forces, a drunk Costello intentionally provoked Bonnie Bramlett (who decked him) by referring to Ray Charles as "a blind, ignorant nigger." Having picked the wrong time to finally turn into a real punk, Costello's reputation for being the thinking man's rocker hit the floor along with his ass. His next two albums, Get Happy! and Trust, were hobbled out of the gate by a witch-hunt for more signs of racism, though none could be found.
Costello was still in hot pursuit of his American dream in 1982 when he released Imperial Bedroom, which was hailed by critics as the Sgt. Pepper's of the 80s. But to these ears something was wrong. Heavy with obtrusive orchestration and dubious production tricks, Imperial Bedroom sounded like Costello was trying, which seriously cracked his image as a man from whom genius simply flowed. Despite "Man out of Time," a thunderously gorgeous anthem, and a handful of chilling moments scattered over the other 14 songs, Imperial Bedroom was like a dark cloud on the horizon.
The shit storm broke with Punch the Clock, the first truly bad album of Costello's career and, unfortunately, the model for many bad albums to come. Costello seemed to have lost his instincts amid needlessly filigreed horn and string crap and huffa-puffa emoting. For the first time, his willingness to derail a song's momentum in order to wedge in a few more syllables was a weakness rather than a strength. This album yielded his first American top 40 hit, "Everyday I Write the Book" — a forced, overproduced pop song that condenses everything wrong about Punch the Clock into three minutes.
But success of the kind that Costello appeared to have in mind was reserved for a pretty face, which he didn't have, and a certain lightness that he seemed on the verge, but ultimately was incapable, of sinking to. He was becoming an increasingly unpopular pop star, vacillating between pretty but calculated stabs at radio-friendly rock ("Veronica") and bitter renunciations of the very success he seemed to be striving for. Attacks on his own failure left him disfigured by the same acid wit that had etched his early songs on so many minds. He released a long string of wildly inconsistent albums; although his verbal power remained generally intact, the musical settings became less coherent. Even the best record of his later period, 1986's King of America, is a white-knuckle ride, with the inane "Eisenhower Blues" and a thuddingly obvious version of "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" jutting out from between some of his most alluring songs.
In this context, All This Useless Beauty comes as something of a relief, like jumping into a pool and finding the water agreeably lukewarm. Grown-up pop songs predominate, from the lush "The Other End of the Telescope" to solid but predictable workouts like the Paul McCartney collaboration "Shallow Grave." The high point of the album — the anthem that's kin to Imperial Bedroom's "Man out of Time" and King of America's title track — is "You Bowed Down," a Byrds cop from top to bottom but still a ringing reminder of Costello's considerable hook-writing prowess.
Throughout the album, the old bite and bile is evident in carefully aimed barbs at favorite targets. To a fading flame: "Now it's so hard to pick the receiver up when I call / I never noticed you could be so small." To a writer run afoul of the artist's temper: "Poor Fractured Atlas threw himself across the mattress / Waving his withering pencil as if it were a pirate's cutlass." To himself, for losing track of his own vision: "I'm certain as a lost dog pondering a signpost / I want to vanish / This is my last request / I've given you the awful truth / Now let me rest." There are plenty of inscrutable lines as well — for instance, "I arose and Marigold lay down with Curious Iris / Cherry gave to Victor her prudence and her virus" — but it's fun to go digging through his verbiage even if we're too thick to understand every reference.
Another saving grace of the new album is the presence, after a mid-career hiatus, of the Attractions. Although they don't sound (or look) quite as perky as they used to — several of the songs are in waltz time, and a not particularly fast waltz at that — they are still a vast improvement over the dispassionate session musicians hired for past efforts. Especially on "Complicated Shadows," the closest thing to a rave-up here, the Attractions kick up dust like they mean it. Even an appearance by the dreaded Brodsky Quartet, a soulless string ensemble that Costello made a darn near unforgivable album with a few years back, can't completely sap the strength of the Costello-Attractions molecular bond.
Despite the consistency of the new album, the marathon live show Costello delivered had the all-too-familiar feel of caroming between crisp greatness and soggy overindulgence. He opened with driving versions of two of his many near hits, "Man out of Time" and "On the Beat," but was soon wandering around the stage as dour keyboard wizard Steve Nieve produced a hokey space jam to introduce one of the new record's less interesting songs, "Little Atoms." Instead of remaining on the edge of their seats the crowd sank into them, as he followed with "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone," a meditation on powerlessness that works fine on the record but dragged onstage. When someone in the crowd persisted in shouting out the titles of old favorites, Costello answered with a quote from Bill Monroe: "I remember the good old days. They're gone." As if to prove that the good old days weren't even all that good, he proceeded to dismiss the rest of the band so he and Nieve could tinker with the beautiful "Party Girl" and deliver a histrionic "Kid About It."
But then the band returned for "The Other End of the Telescope," the old favorite "Green Shirt," and "King of America," which despite a complete screwup by the band on the turnaround revived the rabidly forgiving crowd. As the two-and-a-half-hour show wore on, what should have been a skillful application of tension and release — Costello is no amateur, so that tactic was presumably behind the set list — became a matter of boredom and relief, as puzzling lulls gave way to heart-starting performances. And while Costello's voice has become more and more powerful and technically precise, he has developed a penchant for Mandy Patinkin-style grandiosity that tends to cheapen his songs' true emotions.
It's admittedly damning Costello with faint praise to point out that the show was in large part made worthwhile by the theater's zillion-dollar sound system, which delivered every nuance of every note directly to the audience's cerebral cortices, and also by Costello's decision to end things on a high note. The final encore of "You Bowed Down," an incredible version of "Riot Act," and a turbocharged "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" reminded the crowd why they had come: to revel in the power and forget the weaknesses of a true, if half blind, rock 'n' roll visionary.