Elvis Costello's ambitions are seemingly limitless. He has stepped into John Lennon's big shoes as Paul McCartney's song-writing partner and into Hal David's as Burt Bacharach's. He has sung a duet with Tony Bennett, has recorded an EP with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and has collaborated on a full album with the Brodsky String Quartet. He has been both a songwriter for other singers and an interpreter of other people's songs. He gambles a lot and sometimes he loses the bet, but he hits the jackpot on All This Useless Beauty, a new album which reflects many of the above ambitions and stands as his best work since 1989's Spike.
All This Useless Beauty was mostly recorded with Costello's original road band, the Attractions, but instead of trying to once again "Pump It Up" with the staccato attack of albums from 1978's This Year's Model to 1994's Brutal Youth, the quartet opts for the art-pop of the late Beatles. Unlike most art-rock, though, Costello's new songs boast uncluttered arrangements and smart, subversive lyrics. On the title track, for example, he mocks the BBC idealization of the past with an art-song melody and a venomous vocal twisting and turning on lines like "She looks to her prince, finding he's so charmingly slumped at her side ... he's part ugly beast and Hellenic deceased."
Costello and McCartney co-wrote "Shallow Grave," an irreverent tribute to death given a Tom Waits-like junkyard-rock treatment by the Attractions. "I Want to Vanish," another song yearning for death, is given an eerie chamber treatment by the Brodsky String Quartet. Johnny Cash, who had recorded two Costello songs earlier, declined to do a third, "Complicated Shadows," so Costello does it himself, turning this meditation on the double-edged sword of violence into a brooding rocker. "You Bowed Down," written for Roger McGuinn, is a rousing folk-rocker about moral compromise, but best of all is the gorgeous end-of-an-affair ballad, "The Other End of the Telescope," originally written for 'Til Tuesday.