At last we come to my favorite Elvis Costello record. This may be a weird choice considering that few outside of his hardcore fanbase even know about this album. It didn't spawn any hits and I don't think it was met with much commercial success but it's a flawless and beautiful album from beginning to end that blew me away upon my first listen and all these years later I still think it's his best. It was his last official album with The Attractions and it consists mainly of songs that he wrote for other artists, leaving some to assume that this was nothing more than a record full of leftovers or unacceptable songs. However, nothing could be further from the truth. All This Useless Beauty is a stout reminder that Costello is not only an amazing songwriter for himself but that he has a knack for writing songs for other artists, even if they never end up recording them. Only four of these songs were ever recorded by anyone else and it's neat to watch Costello put a new spin on a song that he wrote and gave to someone else.
The album opens tenderly with "The Other End of the Telescope", a song originally co-written with Aimee Mann. Once again it really sets the tone for the rest of the album and let's you know that this will be a softer and more contemplative experience. "Little Atoms" rides a gentle drum loop and features more great piano playing from Steve Nieve while "Poor Fractured Altas" and "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?" are classic ballads delivered in a way that only Costello can compose and perform. The album's title track is gorgeous and features some brilliant writing both lyrically and musically: "Good Friday arrived/ The sky darkened on time 'til he almost began to negotiate/She held his head like a baby and said 'It's okay if you cry'". It's fantastic all around.
"Distorted Angel" features an interesting arrangement and its religious-themed lyrics tell a great story. "Starting to Come to Me" is an upbeat and uptempo number that gives the band a chance to loosen up while the album closer "I Want to Vanish" is beautiful and so simply done that it's easy to miss it if you're not paying attention.
There are a handful of rockers here to lighten the mood. "Complicated Shadows" was originally written for Johnny Cash but the rock treatment that The Attractions give it make it hard to beat. "Shallow Grave" is a brief two minute exercise in loudness and a great reminder of just how good Elvis and the band worked together as a rock group. "It's Time" is a brilliant piece of pop and contains some classic Costello lines, including the tell-off "But if you do have to leave me who will I have left to hate?". "You Bowed Down" deserves special mention because it might just classify as my favorite Costello song of all-time. With its Byrds-esque arrangement and chiming guitar it's Elvis at his melodic and lyrical best.
I can safely say that all 12 tracks here are brilliant. There's not one wasted track and not a trace of filler or dead space; every song flows easily into the next one and this album features some of the best lyrics and music that Costello has ever penned. Apparently even the songs he intends for other artists to record end up being on par with the material he writes for himself. He had originally envisioned this as a double album and I have no doubt that there are many more great songs out there that could have been added but personally I think the record is perfect as it is and I wouldn't change a note.
All This Useless Beauty isn't for everyone. It's mostly a quiet and ballad-heavy album that is sure to throw off those expecting more rock from Elvis and The Attractions. I loved it the first time I heard it and out of the 20-plus albums EC has recorded this one stands at the top for me, a perfect blend of rock and ballads with an introspective and mature viewpoint that only Costello in this stage of his career could have achieved. It'll probably never be well-known or go down as a classic the way so many of his other albums have but that's okay. This album is like a nice little secret that you share with those close to you because it's so special and intimate. If you want to get a sampling of all the different sides that Costello has or just want to get into him in general then I think this album is a good place to start and I can't recommend it enough.
Costello's career would veer into new territory after this and the original three Attractions would be no more. The album's closing lines perhaps say it best: "I want to vanish/This is my last request/I've given you the awful truth/Now give me my rest."