Recently observed sporting a trainee Father Christmas beard and chewing the fat with Jerry Garcia, Elvis Costello seemed to have completed his self-reinvention as a mellow pseudo-American New Traditionalist. This, his thirteenth album in all and first since 1989's Spike, once again unleashes the barking mad but inspired Costello of Trust, Imperial Bedroom and Blood & Chocolate, where the chainsaw slashes through the dictionary and the tunes pile on pastiche and parody. Farewell, Beloved Entertainer; welcome back, Mr Bitter And Twisted.
Setting the tone, the single "The Other Side Of Summer" is both a lovely piece of cod-Beach Boys pop that could have came from Costello's biggest seller, 1979's Armed Forces, and also a biting jeremiad that sees "malice and magic in every season" and has no doubt that the former outguns the latter. Side two opens likewise with the up-beat but down-mood "Georgie And Her Rival," where a killer pay-off couplet is only weakened by the uncertainly shifting viewpoint. But conventional storytelling has never been Costello's forte; he machine-guns fevered images that defy mundane logic and pepper the nightmare scenarios of "How To Be Dumb" and "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)." Still preaching doom, "Invasion Hit Parade" features the mariachi trumpet of Costello's Father, Ross MacManus, to evoke a Central America where "the liberation forces" arrive with "their rubber aprons and their butcher's hooks" — a vision that might seem hysterical had not real life provided it in the first place.
A picture emerges of Costello upset by an item on the news and at once smashing out a song on his battered typewriter with steam likewise whistling out of his ears and the red mist of creativity descending if a good-looking girl is rude to him — "Harpies Bizarre" joins the lengthy hit list of Costello the vengeful nerd. Here he shafts this year's bimbo with that bedside manner where it's hard to tell if he's wringing his hands or rubbing them. It's an emotion Costello mines to the full on "All Grown Up," where he stretches a girl on the rack of a kitchen-sink drama and hovers over with tenderness for her plight yet contempt for her weakness.
"So Like Candy" and "Sweet Pear" excuse us from that queasy response, being songs of bittersweet farewell and hopeless infatuation to rank with such heartbreakers as "Alison" or "I Want You." Again, the music is breathtaking. The former, co-penned by Paul McCartney, fades out with a trippy flute that exquisitely echoes "Fool On The Hill." Superior to Spike, these songs are played with muscular elan by many of the same musicians; take a bow, Nick Lowe and T-Bone Wolk (bass), Larry Knechtel and Benmont Tench (keys), James Burton and Marc Ribot (guitars), ex-Attraction Pete Thomas and Jim Keltner (drums) with producer Mitchell Froom.
Nor does Costello the human jukebox stop at Beatlisms: borne aloft on a brass-rich melody, the bespectacled one's beseechment of his "Sweet Pear" is redolent of no less than Richard Manuel keening with The Band. As for the lugubrious mind-game of "After The Fall," laced with flamenco guitar it could be an outtake from Leonard Cohen's Songs Of Love And Hate. Least Costello-like, however, is "Broken" (co-written by his wife, Cait O'Riordan): he croons a song of prayer-like devotion over the sort of Celtic mystic soundscape more accustomed to find wandering the likes of Sinead, Bono or even Gabriel.
Inventive music with cryptic meanings persists to the end: "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" unwinds to a hybrid of a colliery band and a banjo-driven New Orleans second line procession, pondering death, love and birth without leaving a firm foothold. The possibilities and nuances seem endless yet the destination remains unclear; all that's certain is, like listening to Dylan's mid-'60s masterpieces, the intensity of the journey. Classic Costello — perhaps even his best yet.