Look Now, Elvis Costello's first album in five years, first with his band The Imposters in 10 years, and 30th overall, has some surprises. He wrote and produced most of the record himself. He contextualizes it as "uptown pop," a supposed return to Imperial Bedroom. He reunites with Burt Bacharach on three songs. Stunningly, he collaborates with Carole King for the first time ever. But for better or worse, Look Now is classic Costello, filled with ballad cheese, funk/soul interpolations, wry cynicism, and latter-day sensitivity all at once.
For one, the album is chock full of humorous platitudes and colorful lyricism. Sure, some of it's predictable: Of course a song with a prominent horn-line called "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter" struts, and Costello's shaking, slogging voice washes with the woodwinds on the "rococo wall" of "Stripping Paper." But the sad sack melancholia of "Don't Look Now" and especially "Photographs Can Lie" reaffirms Costello as the master fly on the wall. On the latter, he waxes that you don't truly know someone's story unless, well, you're them. People tell him he's got the observational skills of his musician father, but not even he can see through photographs. Moreover, the reference to his father, coming a mere few years after releasing a memoir, is exemplary of another phenomenon: Costello is so beloved by obsessive music critics because he's self-referential. The very first track on Look Now, "Under Lime," continues the story of a character from a minor 2010 song, stuck in the horror of a Vaudevillian tragedy. More major, on "I Let the Sun Go Down," Costello quips, "I'm the man who lost the British empire," perhaps referring to an English lad's obsession with American music that made him so popular in new wave, ska, and punk.
There are the upbeat potential hits on Look Now, like "Unwanted Number," "Mr. & Mrs. Hush," and the bossa nova-tinged "Why Won't Heaven Help Me?." But as on "Photographs Can Lie," as Costello's gotten older, he's gotten only more clever. "Roll your eyes at the husbands, not the customers' wives," he demands on "He's Given Me Things." "The past can be bought and then erased," he half-jokes, stepping into the shoes of wealthy socialites and their enablers, people nothing like him, as if it's a songwriting challenge to himself to find some sort of empathy. He passes the test.