“History repeats the old conceits,” Elvis Costello sang thirty-six years ago on Imperial Bedroom, his finest hour of versatile pop mastery. But even back then, he was rarely interested in repeating himself – going from the angry, young almost-punk of 1978’s This Year’s Model to the literate, political New Wave of 1979’s Armed Forces to his “soul record” Get Happy! to the barbed pop of Trust and the country tribute Almost Blue. Or, more recently, following up 2010’s National Ransom (rock and country about the Great Recession), with 2013’s Wise Up Ghost, a successful album of trenchant funk with the Roots. Yet, even if he’s never really returned to a signature sound, he’s also never shied away from the golden-age LPs that made his legacy, packing his live sets with killer versions of Seventies and early Eighties favorites backed by the Imposters, a band that includes keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, who’ve been playing with him throughout his entire career.
Costello’s first new album in five years finds him squaring his restless artistic impulses with his storied past. He says it’s an attempt to connect Imperial Bedroom, where he essentially combined McCartney-esque compositional brilliance with Lennon-esque lyrical bite, and 1998’s Painted from Memory, on which he collaborated with iconic pop songwriter Burt Bacharach. Costello was in his late twenties when Imperial Bedroom was released, and the songs showed it, focusing on people making their first fumbling negotiations toward and struggles within long-term relationships. The biggest song off his previous LP, 1981’s Trust, had been “Clubland,” a searing take on going out. Imperial Bedroom had highpoints like “The Long Honeymoon” on which he sang “There’s no money back guarantee on future happiness,” the grinding sound of youngish people moving into oldish realities.
That dead-end sense haunts the people he sings about on much of Look Now; they’re further down the road of life yet just as troubled because, as always, a satisfied person in an Elvis Costello feels like someone who got off at the wrong bus stop. “It was something I just couldn’t understand until I slipped my finger into the band,” observes the narrator on “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” a punchy soul-kissed tune in which a man pleas for the simple pleasure of understanding his lover’s desires. ” I don’t know if I’m deep down right inside her heart or outside her door.” The album opener “Under Lime,” decks out an elegant melody with Sgt. Pepper’s-like horn flourishes, while Costello spins a short story about an aging singer and his creepy yet emotionally multi-faceted encounter with a young woman who works as a production assistant on a TV show he’s been booked to perform on: “Whatever you think, don’t let him drink,” she is warned. It’s classic Costello, breathlessly jammed with images and wordplay but still effortlessly tuneful, and also timely, tinged with post #MeToo resonance. The standout “Burnt Sugar Is so Bitter,” which Costello co-wrote with Carole King, is about a woman coming to terms with life after her husband has left her, packing a novel into three minutes that brings to mind Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy. Bacharach arranges and plays piano on two songs, “Don’t Look Now” and “Photographs Can Lie,” stately, somber ballads about aging and loss.
What sets these songs apart from many of the other Costello LPs that have come out since the Nineties is that they don’t seem like mere genre experiments – moments like “Unwanted Number” and “Dishonor the Stars” are seasoned, if also somewhat studied, takes on the kind of wry, well-observed pop classicism that’s been the hallmark of his genius. There are moments here where you wish the melodies were more indelible and times where the classiness of the musicality gets in the way of the urgency of the songwriting. But on the whole he’s hit his mark, updating the emotional and musical possibilities behind some of the most beloved music of his great career.