I'm a massive Elvis Costello fan. Between 1977-1986, he could do no wrong. And that includes his Country album. Beyond that, I'd say Costello's aim has been more haphazard than true. While I applaud his willingness to branch out and experiment, I appreciate The Juliet Letters more than I actually listen to it. Since Blood & Chocolate, When I Was Cruel is the one album I keep coming back to. From start to finish, I consider it his most consistent and rewarding. While I wouldn't say he's lost his edge, over the years, he's been a bit too eclectic for his own good. At worst, it's been a self-conscious game of musical chairs.
As for his latest, if you're expecting 1978's This Year's Model, you're bound to be disappointed. Safe to say, that Elvis left the building years ago. Nevertheless, Look Now is a welcome release which falls somewhere in between Punch the Clock and Painted from Memory. For my own part, I love Punch but have always been less than enamored with Memory.
"Under Lime" picks up where National Ransom's "Jimmy Standing in The Rain" left off. Narrative-wise, if not musically. "Last time we saw him he was out in the rain watching that train roll down the track, now he's back in showbiz, trying to make a comeback." Despite the fact that Costello hasn't released an album of original material in 8 years, I wouldn't go so far to suggest "Jimmy" is any kind of alter ego. He's quite a nasty fellow and clearly more a metaphor for showbiz. A predator under limelight that should be buried in quicklime.
If "Don't Look Now" sounds like a Burt Bacharach tune, it should come as no surprise he not only plucks the elephant teeth but co-wrote it. For my tastes, it's better than anything off the cloying likes of Painted from Memory. Speaking of collaborations, "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter" is a now legendary co-write with Carol King that has been magnificently dusted off and refurbished. With its horns and vocal group backing, it's truly more Punch the Clock than Tapestry.
"Stripping Paper" boasts an infectious, if sentimental melody and the formidable Steve Nieve tickling the ivories. Rather than sing in the first or third person, Costello's developed the habit over the years of singing from multiple perspectives. Which can be a bit confusing. In fact, he'll often switch genders within a song. Or in this case, sing regretfully from the male perspective, recalling what another has said to him. It's a parlor trick that doesn't necessarily rope in the listener at first, but with repeated listens, it can lend nuance and layers to the proceedings. On "Unwanted Number," Costello takes on the voice of an unwed mother. Musically, however, this the kind of thing Costello fans clamor for, possessing all the hallmarks his classic work.
"I Let The Sun Go Down" brings Arthur era Kinks and Ray Davies to mind. "Yes, I'm the one who lost the British Empire, yes, I'm the one that let the sun go down." It's good to see him cast a withering glance toward the UK once more for a swipe at Brexit and the preening vanity of nationalism. "Mr. And Misses Hush" follows and sounds like it could have easily fit on Spike. Elsewhere, the intimate, "Photographs Can Lie" finds Costello sitting by the piano with Bacharach again.
If "Dishonor the Stars" is a bit cheesy, there's enough bite lyrically to offset it. For "Suspect My Tears" Costello breaks out the string section with winning results. One of many highlights on Look Now. Here the Town Cryer will "cry until you suspect my tears, you're not the only one who can turn it on when you need it." If you think time has dulled Costello's caustic wit, think again. Meanwhile, "Why Won't Heaven Help Me" beautifully touches on Lounge territory. As does much of Look Now. Going to show that, stylistically, this one of Costello's most focused efforts in years.
Look Now closes with the somewhat maudlin, "He's Given Me Things." Our narrator remembering all the things his now liberated lover said to him upon their last meeting. Lyrically, it's a great summation of Look Now's theme of failed romance. Musically, however, it's a bit of an underwhelming drop of the curtain. But if you feel hung out to dry like Costello's protagonist, hit the deluxe edition with the Regarde Maintenat EP. Consisting of four extra tracks, it's the perfect send off to the whole, Look Now experience.
While I was hoping for a more raucous, pissed off long player from this master of vitriol and heartbreak, there is plenty of both on display here. What's more, vocally Costello has never sounded better. He's no longer straining to hit those high notes, they come to him. Look Now is not only a welcome return, it's a damn fine addition to the Costello cannon. Fingers crossed it won't be another eight years before we hear from him again.