In the wide world of pop 1996, Elvis Costello has problems. Two spleen-spattered decades on from his My Aim Is True emergence he drags such a weight of oeuvre behind him that unless he grows a mohican and records with Steve Albini, he's only going to command the attention of those who already kneel at the McManus altar.
Costello is a logo. And unless you're already firmly tucked up in bed with your Buddy Hollys Superglued on, it's unlikely to signify much beyond that. Oh yes, another Elvis Costello album. That'll be linguistic chicanery, bitter-sweet sentiments, the neurotic piano flourish and the straining Jerry Lewis vocal snipe.
So, is ...Useless Beauty the album to address the barbed bard's niche imprisonment? Well, it's not '94's Brutal Youth wherein, reconnected with The Attractions, he kicked angsty sonic arse. Nor is it the highbrow-raising, black-tie and tails job, 1993 The Juliet Letters. Rather, it is pick 'n' mix Elvis. A strange, slightly confusing, but mostly gripping channel-hopping session through the accumulated tricks of a show-off songcraftsman.
The fact that you get full-on yee-hah! country 'n' western on the same side as a slice of introspective woodwind wallowing may exasperate, but Costello has mitigating circumstances. More than half the compositions (precisely the right term for, such studied, knottily crafted pieces) were written for someone else and a few are 50-50 collaborations.
...Useless Beauty is therefore a kind of stylists' catalogue, in which Elvis plays Whose Tune Is It Anyway?, impersonating himself, as if he were writing with Paul McCartney, in the style of Tom Waits, or something.
The results are often fascinating, here and there, highly moving and, on occasion, just simple fun. "Shallow Grave," which was written with McCartney, would be the latter, sounding as it does like a kind of literary circle Cramps.
However, "Complicated Shadows," which was written for Johnny Cash but never recorded, is none of the above, linking up a kind of mock Dylan tale of foolish bravado to some dusty electric guitar rocking out, and as a result, sounding like something Dave Stewart stepped in.
So, curios and cheese baubles sit next to pure gems. The title track is an aching stunner of a ballad on a par with "Shipbuilding." Written for folk heroine June Tabor, it rises from a pool of glassy piano quietude into a swoon-inducing chorus, squeezing out a multiplicity of mixed emotions along the way with its storyline of a trapped, existentially tortured royal personage. If it's an exercise in empathising with HRH The Queen (something well within the bounds of possibility for a songwriter as perverse as Costello), it's an exercise which transcends the notebook origins.
The old master of disguise also switches into the effortless classicist for the meant-for-Sam Moore piece "Why Can't A Man Stand Alone," doing organ-driven harmony, blasting olde soul and raising the roof in the process. Somehow on the Bonnie Raitt designated "It's Time" he takes tinny breakbeats, brittle rawk guitar and a typically in-folded tale of relationship collapse and pulls an avant-garde eared rabbit out of the hat.
Then, like a hayseed poet laureate, he's off, flinging bon mots around the skidaddling barn of "Starting To Come To Me." Moments later he's pulling off convincingly Byrdsian moves on the delightful and mellifluous paisley piece "You Bowed Down," written for Roger McGuinn. And on "Poor Fractured Atlas" he re-morphs into a more familiar Costello guise — the knife's edge comedian of human failings — mocking the myth of the suffering male artiste in general, and particularly Iron John-style back-to-manhood types with the great opening lines: "He's out in the woods with his squirrel gun / To try to recapture his anger."
Great things are not thin on the ground, in fact — surgical syntax, ironic chording, mordant scenarios — but none of it is quite the sort of greatness that solves the 1996 Costello problem. As well as having the looming shadow of his past obscuring the contemporary flashes of brilliance, his allegiance to scholastic songwriting formalism dates him seriously compared to the mad ramblings of Ryder or the couldn't-give-a-shit sparkle of Gallagher.
Jarvis may have nicked his glasses and Blur covered one of his tunes, but that's not quite enough. Elvis is still caught between the Bacharachs and the Britpoppers, and the excusably, richly schizoid, multiple-identity beast ...Useless Beauty is not about to provide him with a new resting place. That can only happen when he dumps the disguises and once again steps out from behind his techniques.