"I want to vanish," moans Elvis Costello on the last cut of his new record. And his weary plea to be released from the demands of making new music sounds heartfelt: "My fondest wish," he sings, is "to go where I cannot be captured, laid on a decorated dish." As sympathetic as one might be to the apparent exhaustion of rock's original Angry Young Man, "I Want to Vanish" mainly serves to remind one of a nagging suspicion: Didn't Elvis Costello disappear years ago?
That might seem an odd question to put in this, punk's 20th-anniversary season, when Costello is one of the few still-active alums of the class of '76-'77. Earlier this week, the Sex Pistols pulled into town on the blatantly mercenary commemorative tour celebrating the one record they managed to release before falling apart in 1978. Costello, on the other hand, will be promoting his third record in as many years when he hits D.C. for a concert this weekend.
Still, it's so: The Elvis Costello who broke out of the pack 20 years ago — punk's sharp, irritable Everyman — is long gone. That Costello didn't have the Pistols' agenda of anarchy and scandal, or the Clash's commitment to a populist political stance, but he did have an unlimited and contagious store of outrage about being stranded in the decade that produced both the Electric Light Orchestra and Margaret Thatcher. In "Alison," that gorgeous, beady-eyed tough-love anthem, Costello announced his talent and his mission: "My aim is true." And in that and a score of other early numbers, such as "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," "Less Than Zero," and "I'm Not Angry," he displayed the X-ray vision and razor tongue that could slice, dice, and dispatch any absurdity the '70s dished up. That Elvis was brilliant, funny, and completely to the point — in a word, invaluable.
But he didn't stick around long. Costello soon put together the Attractions, the on-again, off-again backup band who are behind him once more on All This Useless Beauty, and plunged into a succession of sometimes effective, more often dilettantish experiments in frenetic genre-sampling: from a dark, acid version of '70s pop inspired by ABBA (Armed Forces) to an Englishman's take on the Stax/Volt soul sound (Get Happy!!) to the Nashville detour Almost Blue. More recently, Spike (1989) and Brutal Youth (1994) have encompassed all these styles and more, and Costello has further extended his reach by writing for films and TV, contributing songs to various tribute projects, and both producing and writing songs for a host of other artists' records. A couple of years ago, he and wife Cait O'Riordan (formerly of the Pogues) knocked out 10 songs over a single weekend for British pop singer Wendy James (formerly of Transvision Vamp).
Impressive, no doubt about it. But you have to wonder: Where amid this ambitiously scattershot approach to a career is the guy whose aim was true? Beauty, marked by this same restless eclecticism, is a good place to start evaluating Costello's progress in the '90s.
It must be said, first off, that Beauty sounds great. Costello's big, cartoonish voice is in fine form, intimidating as always on the rockers and richly shaded on the down-tempo crooners. And this is a very strong crop of tunes, subtle and distinctive — though given Costello's prolificacy, that doesn't mean he didn't throw these together, too, over a long weekend. In any case, they're impeccably arranged and produced. Costello and the Attractions, though reportedly never a cozy bunch personally, have always been able to sound like more than just a four-man combo, and here they perform masterful ensemble work.
The problem is that while Beauty sparkles, it's got a heart of pure zircon. The authority of its performances is real, but the songs themselves are too often pulled down by Costello's now-familiar musical and lyrical indulgences. "Distorted Angel" is an exemplary offender. It's a winning R&B number that Costello ruins with his embarrassing habit of assuming a "soul voice" — an odd lark that seems a bit too close to putting on blackface. Here the imitation is of Sam Moore, and though perhaps skillfully done, it nonetheless carries the same load of perishable novelty as any trick impression.
Similarly, "Complicated Shadows" is sonically impressive — drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas give it a masterly dynamic build — but it's doomed by its contrived, clumsy attempt to mix Johnny Cash's odes to pop-mythic Western gunslingers with the very real tragedy of today's inner-city gangstas. (Mercifully, the Cash vocal mannerisms are kept to a minimum.) "You Bowed Down" is a full-flowered Byrds pastiche that starts off borrowing Roger McGuinn's cascade of 12-string Rickenbacker chords from "Turn! Turn! Turn!," moves into his band's psychedelic period at the bridge, and winds up as a flat-out rocker. And "Starting to Come to Me" is Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan — or would be, if the Attractions could muster the heart as well as the licks of the Nashville and Memphis sidemen who originally backed up Dylan.
These numbers share a cheesy (though technically effective) sleight-of-hand quality reminiscent of all those faux-Hitchcock Brian De Palma movies. It's annoying and frustrating to listen to Costello throwing away his gifts to play at being an over-talented "Weird Al" Yankovic. Yes, this is the '90s, and in our belated, fin de siècle pop moment, sampling and ersatz referencing of earlier pop modes is the style du jour. But Costello has too often shown himself capable of real originality for listeners to feel satisfied by these apish reworkings. Earlier in his career, Costello (as any pop composer must) drew on forms from rockabilly to R&B to '60s power pop, but without the literalism and self-conscious quotation marks that hang over these numbers. Costello's wholesale borrowing on Beauty feels more like slacking than sampling.
And most of the new record's few strong, original numbers fall prey to Costello's other maddening (and related) artistic tic: lyrical obscurantism. As he has increasingly generated his work from genre-mining and cannabalistic cross-referencing, discernible subject and clear sense have dropped out of his lyrics, leaving only indigestible husks of puns, eccentric rhymes, and ambiguities. (Beauty's champ triple rhyme: "mopin'," "Chopin," and "tear open.")
All This Useless Beauty's title track is appropriately lovely, with Steve Nieve's bright keyboard work contrasting Pete Whyman's mellow bass clarinet on the accompaniment. But Costello's cloudy words manage to sap the song's power. Too bad, because they are spun around a striking conceit: the way men's inability to deal with women's beauty and its implicit qualities — gentleness, sensitivity, loveliness itself — lead them to ignore or destroy it. At least I think that's what "Beauty" is about; Costello drops only tantalizing hints of his theme, and never develops it coherently. Much is lost to puzzling personal references and lines that the writer simply hasn't troubled to make clear, like "He's part ugly beast and Hellenic deceased." Is it stretching to wonder if the obfuscation found in "Beauty" and so many other recent Costello lyrics isn't a kind of male passive-aggressiveness — a backhanded form of the resistance to generous expressiveness this song supposedly deplores?
The number that most clearly shows up the doughiness of Costello's recent wordcraft is "Shallow Grave," on which he returns briefly to something like his old form. It's the latest product of Costello's ongoing writing project with Paul McCartney, and proves that Costello can still write a sharp, focused lyric when somebody's pushing him. That's the irony: When McCartney gave Costello a call a few years ago, he was presumably looking for a partner with some of John Lennon's old edge to curb his own tendency toward musical and lyrical flab. But on the evidence of "Shallow Grave," the arrangement has worked the other way 'round: It's McCartney who is occasionally able to bring back the old Costello. The song's lyric, which turns McCartneyesque nursery rhyme to darker purpose, is easily the record's pithiest, and its music some of the record's best and least derivative.
So one feels both sympathetic and startled to arrive at "I Want to Vanish," the disk's last song. Sympathetic because Costello does indeed sound like he'd rather be elsewhere. But when the song concludes, "I've given you the awful truth / Now give me my rest," one feels a bit baffled. Yes, there was a time when Costello could plausibly make that claim of us. But Beauty mainly confirms the opposite impression, that Costello's recent artistic course has served to negate his demonstrated virtues as effectively as if he'd already willed himself to disappear.
Beauty has some music of real power and, yes, beauty. But how about wit, instead of aimless wordplay? How about vision, instead of musical free-association? How about, in short, some work that only Elvis Costello could have produced?