Somehow, Elvis Costello seemed more consistently inspired playing an assortment of (mostly obscure) cover tunes on last year's Kojak Variety. But All This Useless Beauty is definitely stronger than his last album of original material, 1994's Brutal Youth.
Useless Beauty starts out with "The Other End of the Telescope," originally recorded by co-writer Aimee Mann's old outfit, 'Til Tuesday. It's a lovely, sweet-and-sour waltz, but the arrangement is rather predictable. The title track, likewise, sinks too cozily into a gentle bed of keyboards and guitars. So does "Little Atoms" although the softness is shot through with a repeating electronic pattern that sounds like something from an old sci-fi movie.
The return of the Attractions will afford sentimental pleasure to Costello fans, and they still provide solid backing. However, they don't pull out as many twists and surprises as such recent Costello collaborators as James Burton, Marc Ribot and Larry Knechtel. Costello is also taking a step backward with Geoff Emerick. Although he produced one of Costello's finest albums, 1982's Imperial Bedroom, he seems almost tame compared to Mitchell Froom. Froom sometimes got carried away on Costello's last two albums, but the first half of Useless Beauty could use some of his daring and sense of atmosphere.
The second half of Useless Beauty is wider-ranging and more intriguing. On "Distorted Angel," the understated pop-soul arrangement contrasts chillingly with the lyrics' oblique references to unsettling childhood memories. The stark mortality tale "Shallow Grave," co-written with Paul McCartney, is a blues-rock number with the edges jagged, bloody and blurred.
Costello hasn't given up on his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, and "I Want to Vanish" is a more graceful pop-chamber music fusion than 1993's The Juliet Letters. "You Bowed Down," originally written for and recorded by Roger McGuinn, updates the Byrds' sound with vigor. Costello stretches furthest with "It's Time," a gimlet-eyed soul song set to hip-hop rhythms.
The most arresting track, however, is "Starting to Come to Me." The tune has the pop exuberance of the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," riding on a galloping rockabilly bottom. Keyboardist Steve Nieve lays on circus organ, ballpark organ, church organ and extravagant piano arpeggios. A distant, twangy guitar mysteriously appears at the end of the song and flares briefly into feedback.
"Starting to Come to Me" also includes some of Costello's most exhilarating wordplay: "You always cheated life just like the bold daredevil cheated death / Incidentally, late last night your understudy finally got what you deserve."
Costello's muse may not visit as often as she did in the '80s, but she certainly hasn't abandoned him.