If anybody deserves to feel bitter about his undeserved obscurity, it's Elvis Costello. Fortunately for his listeners, he hasn't totally succumbed to the lack-of-fame blues. Where frustration over their cult status has turned his one-time contemporaries Graham Parker and Joe Jackson into crushing bores, Costello continues to cast his net farther afield, finding better things to get riled up about.
Costello's latest, All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros.), is another fine textbook from the guilt-and-revenge school of living. The title track's female narrator would "be tempted to spit if she wasn't so lady-like," as she compares her shlubby husband with the attractive works of art in a museum. The subject of "Poor Fractured Atlas" is a pathetic weekend warrior who spends his free time "out in the woods with his squirrel gun to try and recapture his anger." And the punch line to "It's Time" is "But if you do have to leave me, who will I have left to hate?"
Now that is one twisted co-dependent relationship.
Angry songs call for angry music, and there's no group better at playing angry than the Attractions (back again after their reunion with Costello on 1994's Brutal Youth, which ended an eight year estrangement). Also back in Costello's fold is producer Geoff Emerick, who produced his 1982 Imperial Bedroom album. Emerick gives All This Useless Beauty a similarly impeccable pop sheen, keyed around Steve Nieve's crashing piano dramatics.
Considering the fractured origins of its material, All This Useless Beauty holds together remarkably well. The album's core consists of a half-dozen songs originally written for (and in some cases rejected by) other artists, including Johnny Cash and June Tabor. In a way, then, this makes two albums of covers in a row, following his 1995 collection of obscure soul chestnuts Kojak Variety — except this time, Costello is covering other artists covering him.
Since he's reclaiming songs he gave away, the obvious exercise is to mix and match them with Costello albums. "The Other End of the Telescope" (recorded by 'Til Tuesday in 1988) would have sounded right at home on 1986's folksy King of America. "Why Can't A Man Stand Alone," a slow-burn soul ballad written for Sam & Dave's Sam Moore, sounds tailor-made for 1980's Get Happy!! And the sweeping "You Bowed Down" (recorded by Roger McGuinn in 1991) would have added some accessibility to 1991's impenetrable Mighty Like A Rose.
While that's a fun game for Costello fans, it also makes All This Useless Beauty perhaps the ultimate preaching-to-the-converted item in his catalog — and he doesn't seem to care a whit about it. If he weren't such an obvious crank, you'd be tempted to describe Costello as sanguine.