This new Elvis Costello album is even more anticipated than most. It's his first studio work in two years, his second collaboration with the Attractions after breaking them up in 1985, and it features songs he unveiled in special concerts as long ago as last summer.
While All This Useless Beauty has some splendid songs, there is a tentative feel to it. Costello has lashed out in all kinds of directions this decade, from the skewed pop of Mighty Like a Rose to the classical stab of The Juliet Letters to the retro-Attractions reunion of Brutal Youth and compendium of cover songs, Kojak Variety.
All This Useless Beauty reflects a bit of each. The Attractions are in top form, but rather than replicate their manic early '80s sound, they make themselves available to follow whatever direction Costello wants to go. And on some tracks, they are not required at all. (The Brodsky Quartet pops up on one song.)
With co-production by Geoff Emerick, the Beatles engineer who produced Imperial Bedroom, there is more cohesion than there might otherwise have been. Costello's vocals and writing are in top form. Yet there's some sort of caution here, too, as if he doesn't want to scare anybody away with his sheer experimentalism. Therefore, Costello's most interesting recent track turns out to be a Brian Eno collaboration on the recent X Files tribute album.
A full third of the songs here are familiar to Costello fans as he reclaims songs he's written with and for others — "The Other Side of the Telescope," recorded by 'Til Tuesday; "You Fall Down," for Roger McGuinn; and "I Want to Vanish" for June Tabor. Yet another work from his McCartney collaboration, "Shallow Grave," turns up as one of the most sharp-edged rockers of the set.
Useless Beauty may be a transition record, but Costello is too talented to make it anything less than essential anyway.