Pretty much any style is fair game for Elvis Costello. Forty years and 30 albums in, it wouldn't be surprising if he returned to his early sounds, did more classical work or even collaborated on trap music. Wherever he's gone, it's less as a genre exercise (though maybe the surprisingly good Almost Blue comes close) and more in genuine appreciation of a variety of styles. While he's been relatively quiet from the studio this decade, he's been busy (even dealing with cancer), and a new album with the Imposters raises intrigue. Look Now offers sharp writing and staid music, a combination that offers certain appeal with certain limitations.
The album heavily bears the influence of Costello's work with Burt Bacharach. The tunes, in terms of both structure and performance, circle more around Brill Building material than they do, say, CBGB a few miles south. Costello and the Imposters are highly polished, with restraint and songwriting complexity taking precedence over anything else. Despite its title, Look Now doesn't draw attention to itself, full of classicist and stage pop that you'll sit down to listen to. The music's professionalism could use some rough edges, not just to satisfy aging rockist urges, but to complement the lyrical content.
Costello doesn't write as a poet here; he's a storyteller. These songs feature characters, often in complicated situations expressing an array of emotions. But the lyricism can be lost in the steadiness of the performance. Costello gives the songs full-throated vocals, teasing a little with dynamics, but neither he nor his band sound as hurt or as lost as his characters, leaving some of the emotional impact up to the potential effect of juxtaposition rather than to empathetic assault.
Less flashy but no less artistic than we might expect, the songwriting is strong. A number of tracks are sung entirely or partly from the view of female protagonists, which Costello mostly pulls off and seems culturally relevant as he delves into questions of consent and related matters. The '60s pop of "Stripping Paper" makes an affecting song about returning through the past through wallpaper removal a little saccharine. It's a moment when Costello could have turned the same thoughts somewhere dark or challenging – especially given some of the album's finest lyrics – but it hangs like a showtune not quite ready for the stage. "Unwanted Number" and "Mr. & Mrs. Hush" show how the album succeeds with a combination of complex experiences, solid pop, and just enough twists to remain engaging, evidence that Costello may still be as effective as ever even if this album's a near-miss.
After the stumble of "Why Won't Heaven Help Me?" Costello eases out with a sly narrative mixing visual art, infidelity, and longing. His ability to know what to withhold and what to reveal, when to be raunchy or sympathetic, and how to draw emotion out of a calibrated vocal and a Steve Nieve keyboard makes the song a memorable closer. Costello and the Imposters, in this guise, remain a little too fastidious, but those clean sounds contain roiling depths that invite a closer look.