He's found the way to San Jose, and strolled down Penny Lane. He's written letters with a string quartet and billets-doux for an opera singer. Elvis Costello has done the rounds as no pop musician of his generation has. Now it's time to return to that damp street where he began, flinging curses at doors shut tight to hold the warmth of hypocrisy.
It's different, this time. Years pass, the rage softens, or at least connects differently with the flawed, messy people who were once cartoons. "It was so much easier when I was cruel," he muses in the title song of the CD (out next Tuesday). But the central question remains the same: "You can ask about the truth, or would you rather just swallow a lie?"
You can't do this with an opera singer. You need a dry impatient strumming from an electric bass, and a thrash of keyboards at the chorus. You need some old friends (Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas of the Attractions) who know the way it was done years ago, and can sense the ways it has to be done now, with a few twists that prove the aim is still true. The extent of this need is only apparent when you hear the results, which are dirty and explosive and liable to stain your hands too deeply to be scrubbed out.
The opener, "45," plunges straight back into that urgent sound, with sparse backing chords in the verse and a splashy clamour at the chorus, while Costello teases out the multiple associations, for the boomer generation, of that number. It's the first of several verbal talismans, all of them contained in single-word titles: "Tart," "Dissolve," "Alibi." Costello is the most literate alumnus of the new wave period, and his method resembles that of a metaphysical poet. His new lyrics exert their brawny wit on the oyster shells of words, prying them open to seek the pearl.
The single, "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" is pure pop subversion, with a bright jangle of guitars and a foursquare beat to camouflage the bent satiric sense of the words. But most of the new songs have a more slippery beat, with a reggae inflection or a tango feel that breaks into the open only in the superb "Episode of Blonde." The words are so sharp and vivid that Costello drops out of song, jawing the verses as if they were an incantation by Captain Beefheart.
The Costello of old was painfully glued to the Attractions, but here he's a man with a casual readiness to seize whatever tool feels necessary. For "When I Was Cruel No. 2," he delegates much of the backing to a perfectly chosen sample from a sixties Italian pop record. The song is about a party, so he cribs a lyric from ABBA's "Dancing Queen," and because it's melancholic he lets Nieve throw in a riff from Satie's "Gnossiennes." For "15 Petals," he brings in a brass and reed section, which brays coldly at the moon while he works out a bluesy Middle Eastern tarantella.
"Radio Silence" offers a clear epilogue to "Radio, Radio," though this time, instead of ranting, Costello counsels us to just shut the blighted thing off. The man who once sang of talking "double Dutch with a real double duchess" can still be seduced by the wordplay of "another humdrum conundrum."
The album's weakest track is "Alibi," an overlong denunciation of moral corner-cutting that shows Costello making a rare structural mistake. Two repetitions of the title word for every line of verse might have worked for a standard-length song, but here becomes a bore.
Costello draws his own map these days, and everything on this disc sounds like it needed to be made. We may take it as a happy coincidence that the postpunk sound of two decades ago is cool again, as the success of bands such as The Strokes has shown. "Every Elvis has his army," Costello sings in "Episode of Blonde." And Elvis is still the king.