|LOOK NOW--Elvis Costello|
Look Now, the new Elvis Costello is, at first listening, a highly finessed and fussed -over a collection of songs that seem amorphous, meandering, structurally inert. Lyrically, long Costello's strong suit, in addition to being a solid melodist, reveals a man who has had a few too many harvests from the same unreplenished acreage. Understandably, his vivid imagery has been tamed for decades. Still, we witness here an attempt, over and over, to remain allusive, elliptical, sketching in just enough narrative to provide that this might be a tune that actually has something to say, buried under the happenstance blankness of the lyrics. Those who want to excavate for deeper meanings can leave their shovels and pickaxes in the shed. At age 64 Costello has been through this emotional thicket before, and one worries that he has nothing new to say. Worse, it would seem at his age that he now lacks the knack, or interest, to finesse his established themes.
This is a missed opportunity of somewhat immense proportions. It's been one of the more intriguing aspects of being a close observer of songwriters as they age and seeing how they deal with the unavoidable fact of aging, less nimble of body and mind, simultaneously confronting the advantages and shortcomings of getting older. We had it in the late work of Lou Reed, a writer who regretted nothing in later albums and who tried to extract something like wisdom and balance from his life of self-created crisis.Or from Leonard Cohen, who kept his oddly compelling blend of religious undertones and Laurentian erotica while emphasizing the intellectual paradoxes and oppositions of instinct which a longer view of experience make possible; Cohen embraced it and went on to offer a late body of songs that took the problematic events of life and ventured into musings that traced a higher, profound kind of irony.
Costello does none of this, and appears obsessed with the awful curse of Miles Davis, a musician who found his genius for quick changes in styles and manner of presentation resulting, late in life, in work that might be better described as collaborations between rhythm sections, synth players, producers, and engineers, with cameos by the top-billed trumpeter. Some time ago, this artist decided to become a master of all genres and seemingly wanted to be thought of as a Modern Master than as a consistently good-to-great songwriter. This pains me to say this, but this hero of mine has been a superficial, over-stylized drudge for some two decades. There is nothing that was preventing EC from becoming a latter-day Bacharach or Newman, of course. It wouldn't have been an unworthy goal.