More than a decade ago, Elvis Costello suggested his recording career may be over. "I'm not of a mind to record anymore," he told Mojo. "There's no point… In terms of recorded music, the pact's been broken — the personal connection between the artist and the listener. [The] MP3 has dismantled the intended shape of an album." For a spell, it seemed Costello was making good on that promise. After 2010's sprawling National Ransom, he effectively retired from the studio, resurfacing only for Wise Up Ghost, a collaboration with the Roots that they actually initiated. Earlier this year, Costello revealed he survived a bout with a "small but very aggressive" cancer, so his return to the studio for the sumptuous Look Now, his first album with the Imposters in 10 years, is especially welcome.
Costello stayed busy throughout the past decade, pouring his energy into themed-based shows, whether reviving his Spectacular Spinning Songbook after a quarter-century or transforming his memoir into a solo tour that partly played as an homage to his dear departed dad. Just last year, he and the Imposters — the name he gave to the Attractions after dismissing perpetual pest and bassist, Bruce Thomas — celebrated the 35th anniversary of Imperial Bedroom, the 1982 album where Costello's sophisticated songcraft really flowered.
During this self-imposed studio exile, Costello continued to write, something he proved with new songs during each tour. He kept his eye on the other sort of stage, too. He had two theatrical projects in the hopper with Burt Bacharach — one based on their 1998 album, Painted From Memory, the other a new concept — and toiled away on a musical adaptation of A Face in the Crowd. None of these came to fruition, due to the complexities of Broadway financing, but their pieces are, in part, the fodder for Look Now.
Imposters drummer Pete Thomas cobbled a few of the demos Costello had sent into a playlist, modeling it after Dusty Springfield's sultry 1969 classic, Dusty in Memphis. Intrigued by the sequencing, Costello began to fashion an album from these homeless tunes and stray songs, poaching from his unfinished musicals and rifling through his cupboards of compositions. Echoing Momofuku, the 2008 album that marks the last time Costello recorded with the Imposters, Look Now plays at first like a simple set of songs that eschews grand concepts for immediacy.
Despite their statliness, these tunes are startlingly direct, both emotionally and melodically. They carry only the vaguest air of Costello's signature cleverness and no trace of anger. Opener "Under Lime" is Costello's explicit sequel to "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," a 2010 tale of a down-on-his-luck cowboy crooner. "Under Lime" chronicles a dark backstage exchange between the washed-up singer and a young female intern. It's a dazzling tune, a miniature five-minute musical where the dexterous arrangement matches wordplay so witty that the title's lime comes to represent alcohol, stage lights, and the grave. It suggests the arrival of a rich, audacious song cycle. But the rest of Look Now proceeds at a gentler, empathetic pace, lingering upon the bittersweet plights of their protagonists — usually women, always etched with kindness — instead of rushing toward a conclusion.
These details abound because this material had an unusually long gestation. "Suspect My Tears," a gorgeous ballad that functions as a showcase for all the melodic tricks Costello learned from Bacharach, first aired during a 1999 duo tour between Costello and pianist Steve Nieve. Costello revived "Unwanted Number" — a sensitive girl-group pastiche written from the perspective of a teenager dealing with an undesired pregnancy — from a 1996 film loosely based on Carole King's time writing at the Brill Building. He penned "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," a densely layered confection, with King herself around the same time. Rather than forming a patchwork, these disparate origins inspire a surprisingly cohesive album, as they follow a distinct, deliberate point of view — lush, complex, and proudly mature, music that champions tradition while shunning nostalgia.
As a collection of tunes, Look Now is a triumph for Costello, a showcase for how he can enliven a mastery of form with a dramatist's eye. But as an album, Look Now is a success because of the Imposters. Unlike Imperial Bedroom or Painted From Memory, the focus isn't studio trickery or strings but rather the lean muscle of a band who has spent decades following their leader's every whim. They are a sharp, supple outfit that can swing and sigh, sometimes within the same number, as when they effortlessly pivot between bossa nova verses and a radiant chorus during "Why Won't Heaven Help Me?" This subtle sophistication and palpable flair make Look Now more than a mere set of songs — it's a record worth getting lost within.