It takes serious chutzpah to unleash your latest album just as one of your most treasured (Armed Forces) is being reissued, but Elvis Costello has never been lacking in the cojones department. Just listen as he opens studio album number twenty-something with solemn spoken words — "love is the one thing we can save" — over music that wouldn't be out of place on a Tinariwen record, and then barrels into "No Flag," combining Attractions-era twang with percussion lifted from Tom Waits' "Big In Japan." "I've had no epiphany, why should anybody listen to me?" he howls. We should listen because Costello continues to blaze away fearlessly, following his own path.
Then, just to remind you that he can, he delivers something as gorgeous as "They're Not Laughing At Me Now," where he gives the tremolo in his voice full rein over an acoustic guitar, before the drums come in to fight it out with various woodwinds that sound like they're trying to force their way through a closed door.
The brass that emerges out of the scuzzy "Newspaper Pane" — "no work today, no hope tomorrow," the treated backing vocals and deep piano and bass that drive the noir capitulation documenting "We Are All Cowards Now," and "Radio Is Everything," the album's other spoken-word stab, sheathed in beautiful trumpet — Costello casually and repeatedly displays magic flourishes of both arrangement and lyric. Pick the bones out of this pen work from the latter, for God's sake, "A button of brass an epaulet of gold, that lenten light, that slight fanfare that consoles, that trivial, sniveling rosary, that ring-a-ding rosemary, condemned a man, alas, at last, at requiem mass." I'm not sure what it means, but it certainly sounds good.
The jazzier inflections of the title track — recorded with Le Quintette Saint Germain as Costello jetted around the world recording in Paris and Helsinki in a manner that seems sadly unthinkable now — and "I Can't Say Her Name" aren't really for me – although if my experience with previous Costello records is anything to go by, I'll probably love them in a month's time. That being said, any record that finds a home, in between more "challenging" fare like "Hetty O'Hara Confidential," for songs as superb as "The Whirlwind," "The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip," and, most especially, closing future standard "Byline," is more that fit for filing alongside his other couple of dozen. They're nearly all at least touched by greatness, and there are touches of it here too.