Anyone who caught Elvis Costello's performance on Saturday Night Live last May probably did a double-take. The one-time Prince of Punks sported a rabbinical red beard, long braided hair, and a spreading middle. Appearances don't deceive; you can hear evidence of musical bloat and wordy excess in his new album, a slow-going, nearly hour-long obstacle course that will derail all but die-hard Costellophiles.
The obsessiveness that fueled his early albums has lately acquired a dense, sinking gravity to it. Whereas Costello's rage and contumely cut to the bone in 1977, now they sag under the weight of a compulsive abstruseness, giving the impression of a street-corner fanatic bellowing conspiracy theories. These days Costello doesn't so much create songs as pass them like kidney stones. It doesn't help that the new recording makes his voice sound parched and flat, nor is it a boon that he's taken up with sundry California studio pros whose well-tempered playing is a far cry from the Attractions' inspired mayhem.
At the same time, there is method to Costello's madness, and the album coheres, oddly enough, around some of its most difficult compositions. "All Grown Up" boasts a subtle, swelling string-and-woodwind arrangement, and trumpet, grand piano, and chamberlain decorate "Invasion Hit Parade." A woodwind quintet and harpsichord create a rarefied air in "Harpies Bizarre" as Costello skewers the courting rituals of the bourgeoisie. Counterpointing these is the relatively uncluttered, confected pop of "So Like Candy" and "Playboy to a Man," collaborations with Paul McCartney, and "The Other Side of Summer," in which Beach Boys-inspired music washes over a typically splenetic, impenetrable lyric.
The payoff of making it through this fourteen-song maze is "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," which exemplifies all of the virtues of a well-crafted song. The lyrics are deep, not unreachable; the music, set in waltz time, is ingenious, not stridently clever. One can identify with it emotionally as well as intellectually. As for the album as a whole, it is difficult to form a final opinion. Some may consider it Costello's most ambitious work since Imperial Bedroom. Others will find it as convoluted as Goodbye Cruel World, his worst album. In a way, both views are right.