It's a done deal: Elvis Costello is, at long last, wedged soundly into his forties — mired in the tasteful restraint of middle age and distressingly self-satisfied about it. He tried to fool us into thinking otherwise with 1994's Brutal Youth, teaming up with his old colleague Nick Lowe to muster up a belated attempt at recapturing the restless, pill-popping spirit of his glory days. The tour that followed teased fans with a surprisingly peppy string of performances. Sadly, though, Brutal Youth's content didn't measure up to the McManus standard of excellence, and at this stage of the game, extra points for effort are, shall we say, pointless.
You can almost hear Costello's hairline receding — right along with the hairlines of the Attractions — on the new All This Useless Beauty, a stodgy, ambling collection of willfully "adult" songs. If Elvis is going to play grownup, he'd do better to leave the Attractions out of it, as he did on the striking 1993 song cycle The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky String Quartet. Instead, Costello drags one of the best backup bands in rock and roll into a project on which hired help would have sufficed.
As it is here, the Attractions are underutilized, aside from the random effort to air out the stale atmosphere in the studio. Needless to say, those few exceptions are welcome ones: the bold rocker "Complicated Shadows" would have fit comfortably on Brutal Youth as one of its better cuts; "You Bowed Down" is a pretty reworking of a song Costello wrote for Roger McGuinn's 1991 release, Back from Rio; "It's Time" features an upbeat, R&B-flavored hook and a wrenching, soul-drenched lead vocal in the chorus that's hard to shake.
The rest, however, is snoresville — loping along slower than a thirsty mule in the desert. "And if you still don't like my song / Then you can just go to hell," sings the grumpy old man with only a hint of conviction on "Little Atoms," one of All This Useless Beauty's surplus of sedate ballads. I can see the fires of Hades now, and they've got to be more inspiring than this.