Like nearly everything Elvis Costello has released in the Nineties, All This Useless Beauty is spotty but sporadically brilliant. Drawn mainly from songs he wrote for other artists, it's finely crafted, lovingly sung, and still a considerable letdown after 1994's Brutal Youth, where he finally brought back his old punk-pop venom. This time he has become a maker of high class piano ballads, and while most of the songs (save for "You Bowed Down," a standard rant recorded by Roger McGuinn on his last solo album) are strong enough in their own right, they're less than overwhelming end to end.
It doesn't help that the usually impeccable Attractions are more subdued than usual, and a few of the arrangements misfire. "Distorted Angel" cries out for a complex treatment, but it's sunk by a twiddly and repetitive synthesizer riff. And "Starting to Come to Me," which should be a lacerating putdown, is taken in an inexplicably jolly gallop with campy piano and background vocals. As for the sporadic brilliance, "The Other End of the Telescope" (first recorded, with less success, by co-author Aimee Mann) is quintessential Costello pop, while "Complicated Shadows" (first done by Johnny Cash) can only be described as grunge-abilly. The tense standout "It's Time" gets a dramatic vocal and a hip-hop arrangement that's unlike anything Costello has attempted before. It's telling that the best moments all come when the former Declan McManus breaks out of the album's cocktail lounge ambience.