It's easy to get lost within the sheer bulk of Elvis Costello's work — particularly since most of it, from 1977's My Aim Is True through 1986's Blood & Chocolate, has been reissued by Rykodisc, bearing bonus tracks galore and directly competing with his new material. Of which, of course, there's been lots.
In that context, All This Useless Beauty sounds surprisingly good. Since The Juliet Letters, his disappointing 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet — "disappointing" because whatever it attempted to do, it didn't — Costello has seemed to be struggling, making albums that have "angles," often at the expense of individual songs. 1994's Brutal Youth: Elvis reunites with the Attractions. 1995's Kojak Variety: Elvis does oldies. All This Useless Beauty? Elvis reunites with the Attractions and does oldies, sort of.
In fact, the new record puts Costello and the Attractions back on track, making music that often sounds like it might've come from their best work, 1992's Imperial Bedroom. Partial credit here surely stems from co-producer Geoff Emerick, who likewise shaped Bedroom; unlike Kevin Killen or Mitchell Froom, Costello's most recent co-producers, he's a Brit, and the sound here reveals as much. Steve Nieve's piano has as much reverbed twinkle as it did 15 years ago, and it's a very welcome sound.
In a sense, this album clears the decks: There are six songs here Costello has written for or with others but never recorded himself, including the opener "Other End (Of The Telescope)" (co-written with Aimee Mann and previously sung by 'Til Tuesday), "You Bowed Down" (written for Roger McGuinn's 1991 comeback set Back From Rio), and "Shallow Grave" (from the Paul McCartney collaborations), among others. Those songs are fine but the newer material is more satisfying and sounds less written-for-hire and more written-from-the-heart.
Once, long ago, Costello sang Dusty Springfield's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself." Later, on the liner notes to Kojak Variety, he raved about her classic 1969 album Dusty in Memphis. It's not difficult to imagine Dustsinging "[[Distorted Angel," one of Beauty's better tunes. Nor would "It's Time" sound out of place had Sandie Shaw covered it 30 years ago. This is no small compliment. All This Useless Beauty sounds like the sort of great pop music Elvis Costello was supposed to be making, if, I don't know, he'd only been paying attention or something. Now he is — and we should be, too.