It's been a decade since Elvis Costello's last stroke of genius (the one-two punch of King of America and Blood and Chocolate in 1986), which is long enough to wonder if the singer who once dubbed himself "This Year's Model" is now just yesterday's fashion.
Not so fast. All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros.), his 17th studio album, is an often-stunning work filled with the same spit and spark he showed in the late '70s.
Costello originally wrote half the 12 songs on Beauty for other singers — some (Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney and Sam Moore) never released their versions and some did (Roger McGuinn issued "You Bowed Down" on his last solo album, and Til Tuesday put out "Other End of the Telescope" in 1988). But musically, he refuses to confine himself to any one theme.
Working mostly with his old band, the Attractions, Costello moves effortlessly from avant-gospel-rock ("Shallow Grave," co-written with McCartney) to shimmering psychedelic pop (the suitably Byrds-ish "You Bowed Down") to an elegant blues inspired by Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" ("Poor Fractured Atlas").
Yet he waits until track 11, "It's Time," to drop the big bomb: Elvis does hip-hop. Costello might not be ready to start going by M.C. Elvis (he sings the lyrics instead of rapping), but he gives up the funk on "It's Time" with such a passion you'd think he'd been hip-hoppin' for years.
Except for two or three duds (such as "I Want to Vanish," another boring collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet), he seems totally rejuvenated here: His prickly guitar work has improved immensely, his bizarre wordplay is as dazzling as ever and Costello has even toned down his trademark oversinging.
Elvis might not be the king anymore, but on All This Useless Beauty, he has recaptured a lot of his old power.