When Elvis Costello was at the height of his early pop stardom, he veered off-piste to Nashville to make the poorly-reviewed, but nonetheless hit-yielding and enduringly popular, 1981 record, Almost Blue, the sleeve of which carried the sticker: "WARNING! This album contains country & western music and may produce a radical reaction in narrow minded people."
It has always been thus with EC, so that keeping up with his career trajectory has been an often exhausting, but always rewarding, undertaking. Whether on his own, with his regular backing group, or increasingly in collaboration with other great musicians he admired, Costello was forever turning a new page and setting off in a fresh direction. So the immediately astonishing thing about the disc he released yesterday, Look Now, his first of new material in five years and the first with his own band in a decade, is that it sounds exactly like an Elvis Costello album.
For devotees like myself, that comes as a bit of a shock — initially even a slight disappointment. The UK's greatest living songwriter taking us somewhere we have already been? What's that all about?
Costello's own explanation is that revisiting some of his older material — and there have been shows focused on his debut My Aim is True and, more recently, the Geoff Emerick-produced Imperial Bedroom — in the company of The Imposters, settled in his mind that his band deserved to be captured on record at the top of their form. That will be a part of the reason, but an attentive listen to Look Now suggests a deeper agenda.
Its opening track, "Under Lime," continues the story of alter-ego vaudeville star Jimmie, who was "Standing in the Rain" on 2010's National Ransom. The chorus runs "It's a long way down from that high horse you're on / It's a long way back as you cover your tracks" and readers of Costello's autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, may recognise the tone. Three tracks further on, the home-DIY metaphor of "Stripping Paper" is an explicit reference to the process of revealing layers of personal and family history. The fact that lyrics here also employ the sort of word-play that annoyed some people on his early records ("he thought of a drummer / And considered a snare" puns "Under Lime") matches a musical palette that is festooned in colours that have shone through past triumphs. There is little audible country music influence on the sound of Look Now, but plenty from the sixties pop/soul that was the foundation of the albums on either side of Almost Blue. In fact two of the songsmiths of that era, Burt Bacharach and Carole King, have co-writing credits on new songs here. The King collaboration, "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," is also garlanded with a classic Steve Nieve piano figure, interwoven with a horn line that instantly recalls "Impatience," the superb bonus track that concludes Costello's 2003 love-letter to his Canadian wife Diane Krall, North.
While "I Let the Sun Go Down" echoes late studio triumphs by The Beatles, as engineered by the recently-deceased Emerick, the Bacharach/Costello songs are two of the album's briefer vignettes and slightly outshone by "Suspect My Tears," which may be Costello's own best tilt at adding to the catalogue he first paid tribute to in his late 70s cover of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself."
With this new set, Elvis Costello has made an album that is a personal take on pop's current obsession with its own back pages, perhaps partly fuelled by the intimation of mortality that was his own recent health scare. The album's title is not "Don't Look Now," which is one of the new Bacharach collaborations it contains, but the more positive and forward-facing Look Now, reminiscent of Costello's instruction to his male fans when he was forced to cancel some European dates earlier this year: Gentlemen, get yourselves checked.