Despite the much-trumpeted news of Elvis Costello's recent ill health (not a full-scale battle with cancer, but more of an unpleasant encounter), this is not an album written and recorded in dread. Those expecting a Blackstar (David Bowie), a Time Out of Mind (Bob Dylan) or a You Want it Darker (Leonard Cohen) can, much like the Grim Reaper, walk away disappointed. As implied by the album title, Elvis Costello is very much in the present.
This is ever so slightly ironic, as his latest studio outing (arriving eight years after the rootsy National Ransom, upon whose release he said he had come to "the end of the line" with the album format) harks back to his 1982 work, Imperial Bedroom. That record (not produced but "directed" by studio engineer Geoff Emerick, formerly a crucial pair of ears for The Beatles on Revolver, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album and Abbey Road) is widely regarded as one of Costello's very best. Indeed, American music critic Robert Christgau, reviewing it in the Village Voice, declared that certain songs on the album "are as great as songwriting ever gets." A bold claim at any time, it nonetheless holds some truth with regard to Imperial Bedroom. It is no understatement to say that Look Now is that album's long distant cousin.
The songs, recorded in New York with his band, The Imposters (former Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, and long-term bassist Davey Faragher), were performed with the knowledge of needing to undergo surgery to excise "a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy." It seems futile to ponder whether Costello's impending surgery added any levels of emotional depth or resonance to the songs; what is perhaps more pertinent is that the majority of the songs on Look Now pulsate with undisguised vigour compared with much of Costello's recent output.
This is by no means coincidental. Costello's 2017 tour, Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers, revisited the titular album — not in rote entirety but with more discrimination. Digging in and under Imperial Bedroom's songs triggered the notion of returning to, at the very least, their aesthetics. Look Now gathers together similarly dynamic material (not all of which was written recently — "Burnt Sugar Is so Bitter," co-written with Carole King, dates from more than 25 years ago) with such a steady hand that songs such as "Under Lime," "Photographs Can Lie," "Stripping Paper," "Suspect My Tears" and "Don't Look Now" constitute a latter-day high in the songwriter's output.
It obviously helps matters that Costello's writing remains as pointed (and less determinedly, quotably "clever") as it has always been. One of contemporary music's most perceptive lyricists, here he sings frequently from a feminine perspective: the dilemma of a wife in a failing marriage ("Stripping Paper" — "I wish we could laugh like that now, but what seemed to follow, it ended up hollow, was our vow"), a daughter's thoughts on her cheating father ("Photographs Can Lie" — "he used to be more than this"), and a model scorning misplaced propositions ("Don't Look Now" — "Don't you dare, I'm not decent, go sit over there").
The songs are framed in benchmark 1960s pop music arrangements that allude as much to Costello's 1998 album, Painted from Memory, a collaborative high point with Burt Bacharach (who co-wrote "Photographs Can Lie" and "Don't Look Now") as to simmering Atlantic/Stax label records. There's more to Look Now than reference points, however. There is a focus, a cohesive outlook, a defined outline, and ultimately the reappearance of a songwriter who aims to be in charge once more.