|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 strong melodist, reveals a man who has had a few too many harvests from the same un-replenished 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 nothing new to say. Worse, it would seem at his age is that he now lacks the knack, or interest, to finesse his established themes. This is a missed opportunity of somewhat huge proportions, as 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 of becoming older, 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 effective 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 a life and ventured into musings that traced a higher, profound kind of irony.Costello does none of this , really, and appears obsessed with the awful curse of Miles Davis, a jazz genius who found his genius for quick changes in styles and manner of presentation resulting, late , late in life, in work that might be better described as collaborations between rhythm sections, synth players, producers and engineers , with cameo appearances 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.
I think, though, that Costello neglected the aspect of both Bacharach and Newman that, except for occasional lapses, neither lost their sense of song construction. Eclectic as both were regarding musical sources, their material was generally sharp and melodically defined. The new record demonstrates his increased interests in vague atmospherics; the introduction of horn sections seems intrusive, an afterthought. Had these songs been tighter in the arrangement, more purposeful, that is too say, "catchier" for the listener to go along with mood, narrative perspective, and psychology, I might have forgiven the slack lyric writing. But I'm afraid this is a case of one bad habit of holding hands with another. Finally, the melodies here are slight and ephemeral, a nod, I suppose, at creating moods dark, opaque, with all things said hanging on the sketchily articulated notes in a manner suggesting the mannered atmospherics of substandard horror movies. They don't linger in the mind, much like an Alka Seltzer tablet dropped in water, fizzy, bubbly, full of hisses and subtle sounds, but gone, finally, unmemorable.
The lyrics are labored, overly clever, with a pang but too premeditated. This isn't a lazy album but maybe an overcooked one. It's a smart person's record that outsmarts itself. it is generally a really bad sign when a pop/rock musician decides to get SINCERE after building up an audience with the sort of pose or attitude that might be considered theatrical or otherwise self-created. EC seems to have done this in the mid-'80s after repenting various unfortunate public behaviors and outgrowing his angry young man shtick. The thing is, sincerity is also a shtick -- its the whole hand-wringing confessional bit where you drop the "act" and show your "real" face to the public (because you love them, of course). Lady Gaga did this a few years ago -- she showed us she was a REAL: singer/songwriter and even posed with a manual typewriter in photos to prove it! Wow! To his eternal credit, David Bowie never laid this kind of bullshit trip on his fans. Bob Dylan has also never made a ballyhooed "honest" record, implying that all of his albums are both honest and artificial. About the only rock artist who ever pulled this off successfully was John Lennon on his Plastic Ono Band album, and that might have been because he actually was going through therapy instead of a bogus act of public self-unmasking.