"I sang every note of the new record after I got the diagnosis," Elvis Costello confided recently. Last July, he cancelled a handful of dates after he toured too soon after surgery to remove a small tumour. Unsurprisingly, at its best, Look Now — Costello's 31st album — comes freighted with vivid feeling as well as sophisticated instrumentation and arrangements.
"Stripping Paper" is a tremendous vignette that peels back the layers of a relationship, from the first flushes of a liaison ("my back against the rococo wall") through the kiddy wallpaper to latter-day blankness. The excellent single "Unwanted Number," meanwhile, details a fraught process of romantic mismatching with Motown-style backing vocals. In 2017, Costello toured his Imperial Bedroom album of 1982; Look Now bears some resemblance to that first chamber-pop outing, in which relationships loomed large.
Costello has collaborated here with Burt Bacharach (two tracks) and Carole King (one), and in bowing to these giants of American song a surfeit of schmaltz creeps into his narrative voice. The album's title speaks of urgency; its nearest song, "Don't Look Now," details the unwanted advances that bedevil a model. But the episode twinkles a little too prettily for the subject matter.