Elvis Costello’s first album in 10 years with The Imposters follows a tour during which he and his backing trio — Steve Nieve (keyboards), Pete Thomas (drums), Davey Faragher (bass) — revisited the 1982 album Imperial Bedroom.
That record opened with one of Costello’s most accomplished songs, "Beyond Belief," in which a drunk in an "almost empty gin palace" tries to pick up a woman. Look Now begins with another lush trying it on, more successfully this time, with a younger woman in the dressing-room of a television show. He is a seedy vaudevillian who has turned up in a previous Costello song ("Jimmie Standing in the Rain"). The music has a desperate note of vitality, all strutting drums and lusty horns, a witty soundtrack for a sharply penned portrait of a comic grotesque.
The rest of the album lives up to this promising start. The songs are tightly constructed affairs, packing a lot of lyrical and musical action into their four-minute spans yet they do not feel constricted or over-busy. Costello does a great deal of singing (there are very few instrumental breaks). His voice has grown hoarser over time but remains animated and expressive.
The influence of 1960s pop-soul runs through the 12 tracks. Backing singers add a classic girl group flavour to several numbers, one of which, "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," was written with Carole King. Burt Bacharach co-wrote three songs and plays piano on the ballads "Don’t Look Now" and "Photographs Can Lie."
Romantic melodies and upbeat rhythms sugar the bitter pill of Costello’s stories, in which marriages collapse ("Stripping Paper") and lovers trick each other with fake emotions ("Suspect My Tears"). What might seem a claustrophobic set of narratives, always with a sting in the tail, is leavened by witty wordplay and a shifting outlook, done with sympathy for other perspectives. A good portion of the songs find Costello, who in his younger days faced accusations of misogyny, singing from the point of view of a woman.