Recorded immediately after 1991's Mighty Like a Rose and before The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, this all-covers disc instead recalls the E.C. of old — the man who released Get Happy! and Taking Liberties, the would-be soul singer, the rock revisionist, the jazz crooner, the modernist with respect for his elders.
But the Costello who covers Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "Strange" or Little Richard's "Bama Lama Loo" is not the same young irritated would-be punk who decimated Sam and Dave, the Merseybeats, or Booker T and the MG's 15 years ago on Get Happy!; he no longer has the same reckless abandon, the same something-to-prove that made his music once so immediate even when he wasn't singing his own wordy lyrics. The Costello of Kojak Variety is instead a middle-aged man more comfortable with the ballads, but one who nonetheless sticks to the rockers and soul numbers like a musician seeking to rediscover a lost passion. Which, ultimately, is what elevates Kojak Variety from novelty piece to essential addition because here's where Elvis reveals his influences past and future, and here's where he is reborn.
If Costello sounded too cynical and fed-up on recent albums, like a lost and tired man singing through a yawn and a sneer, Kojak Variety is his most open work in years, driven by soul instead of the puny black heart that made Mighty Like a Rose so unlistenable. His take on Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" pales when compared to Taking Liberties' sparse, unnerving, brief "My Funny Valentine," but it underlines just how great a singer he has become after all these years.
And it reminds us how powerful a performer Costello can still be: whether he's crooning the Burt Bacharach-Hal David composition "Please Stay" or belting Willie Dixon's "Hidden Charms" or screaming Little Richard's "Bama Lama Loo," Costello never sounds out-of-place or ill-suited to the material. He is, like Sinatra, a man who so thoroughly buries himself in his material that it becomes hard to believe he didn't write the words himself, something never more obvious than when he's interpreting the music of Bob Dylan ("I Threw it All Away") or Ray Davies ("Days") — the fathers of Elvis Costello, their bastard son.