Never mind his Irish-British heritage, Elvis Costello truly is the King of America, or at least American music, as his 1986 album implies. Master of the poisonous put-down, wielder of heartbreak melodies — he is equal parts Buddy Holly, Burt Bacharach and Gram Parsons, with a patented sneer that has aged in its sweet bitterness like fine wine. His continued musical impact has gone light years beyond even his namesake's influence.
Still, at this point in Costello's career, it would be unfair to expect of the man anything as raw and rapturous as This Year's Model or bruised and delicately crafted as Blood & Chocolate. But as his latest album confirms, Costello has absolutely no intention of resting on his laurels.
Momofuku, curiously named for the inventor of instant noodles, finds Costello relevant as ever. Opting for a non-traditional release (as so many artists have of late), he chose to release the album on vinyl two weeks prior to today's CD release, offering purchasers a download code to go with their long players.
Whatever your preferred format might be, Costello's latest surpasses his post-Attractions output as the most cohesive album he has cut in over a decade. Back together with The Imposters (which features two of his original Attractions members), the 53-year-old musician comes across invigorated and ready to challenge himself.
In what could turn out to be 2008's most musically beneficial reciprocation, Momofuku came out of Costello's involvement with the forthcoming Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) solo album. Welcoming the new blood, The Imposters integrate Lewis and her guitarist/beau Johnathan Rice on several tracks. Be it Costello's or the Lewis/Rice camp's influence, Momofuku sounds as if a fresh set of ears had some input in shaping the songs.
The album is both cohesive and exhaustive in covering Costello's many faces. There is a discerning adoration for his best work applied throughout, with the benefit of hindsight and just the right amount of tinkering.
Aging gracefully does not mean turning the amps down or forgoing exploration. "Stella Hurt" rages its way into a swirl of reverberated organs and guitars, pounding away into a deep, hypnotic groove. Pushing the six-minute mark, "Turpentine" stretches out over a pseudo-Bo Diddley beat into a psychedelic mash-up.
"You did everything to me that stops short of murder," Costello sings. His caustic wit has not been dulled in the slightest by the years passed. The somewhat inevitable notes of middle-aged nostalgia and sentiment creep in on "My Three Sons," as Costello imparts some fatherly love and wisdom. The lyrical content of the song diverts from the rest of the material, not to mention its relative weakness.
After 30 years of elevating his craft, it is pretty safe to say Costello has earned the right to a musical Hallmark moment here and there. And as far as indulgences go, "My Three Sons" is nothing extravagant. Elsewhere on Momofuku, the man is all business.
On "American Gangster Time," Costello and Imposters members Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas revisit their fantastic late-'70s output. The warm analog recording and the singer's well-weathered voice completely belie the time passed in between The Attractions' earlier albums and Momofuku.
The piano-led number "Mr. Feathers" could have easily been a stripped-down demo from the Imperial Bedroom sessions, while the mournful Americana on "Song with Rose" (co-written with Rosanne Cash) recalls King of America with a dose of Roy Orbison added to the mix. Touches of teary pedal-steel (courtesy of Lewis associate "Farmer" Dave Scher) connect the dots across Momofuku, adding a bit of musical continuity to the eclecticism.
Just within the opener alone, "No Hiding Place," Costello flips through nearly every page in his hefty songbook. Lewis, Rice and company lend their vocals here and through most of the album, rounding out the collaborative feeling. The young guns could not feel any more natural rubbing elbows with the old-timers, especially when Lewis harmonizes on the chorus of album closer "Go Away," a simple classic of a Costello tune.
Any diehard Costello fan could fantasize endlessly over the possibilities of any continued Lewis collaborations — live duets on "I Want You" or "Indoor Fireworks," anyone? Hopefully they will cross those bridges when they come to them, but for now, the fruitful Momofuku is plenty to be thankful for.
No less impassioned a performer than he was three decades ago, Costello clearly has plenty left to offer. He has inspired punk rockers, barroom crooners, shit-kickers with acoustic guitars and almost everyone else in between. Momofuku is simply one more incredibly enjoyable reason Costello is pop music.
"I'm a limited, primitive kind of man," he sings on the barebones tune "Drum and Bone." Self-effacing humor or not, the statement could not be farther from the truth.