All in all, it's probably not a good time to be literate.
Much of what's generating the most heat and sales in music today is sound and fury — ironically, what Elvis Costello was selling nearly two decades ago. He has always been musically and lyrically sophisticated, but the wordplay and noise of the past have been replaced by subtlety, nuance and grace.
The result is to keep him yet again two or three steps ahead of the pack — so far ahead, in fact, that All This Useless Beauty, due Tuesday, might fade without a ripple. It may be too tame for alternative rock radio, and maybe just a little too clever for Triple-A radio as well.
That would be a tragedy, but then, it has happened to Costello before. Drawn from songs Costello has given to other artists over the years as well as containing some brand-new tracks of his own, All This Useless Beauty is perhaps Costello's strongest collection of songs outside of his best-of packages.
In the past, Costello's best work has been thematically joined (King of America) or was written in one creative burst (Blood & Chocolate, This Year's Model). These songs, on the other hand, have nothing in common except that they're almost without exception remarkable pieces and they're all performed by Costello and the Attractions.
Oddly enough, this full-on reunion with the Attractions has yielded an album that doesn't really sound like Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Anyone expecting the fury of This Year's Model or the somber mood of Imperial Bedroom won't find it here.
That speaks volumes for how accomplished the band has become over the years. No longer just the fast, nimble and loud accompanists of the late '70s or the grandiose arrangers of Imperial Bedroom, the Attractions can handle anything Costello comes up with and sound like a different band every time.
Indeed, Costello's writing style has been so eclectic over the years that it would be difficult for any band to sound consistent on the hodgepodge of songs that make up All This Useless Beauty. Whether it's the heartache of "The Other End of the Telescope," the sly, striking sting of "Complicated Shadows" or the lament of "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone," the band gives each its own identity, almost as if the songs were intended for entirely different albums — which, of course, they originally were.
Much of the work of Costello, Lou Reed, Richard Thompson and others is easier to admire than actually listen to. This is one of those delightful exceptions. The eclectic songs somehow hold together as a whole album that's a pleasure to hear while you marvel at its smarts.
There is a clinker or two. The peppy "Starting to Come To Me" is too sprightly for its own good. "I Want to Vanish" is lyrically superb but musically a bit pedestrian, especially considering the loops and twists in songs such as "Complicated Shadows" or the gorgeous melody of "All This Useless Beauty."
All in all, the album will only enhance Costello's reputation as rock's most important songwriter after Bob Dylan.