Elvis Costello would like you to know that Look Now, his first album in five years, is not “a little-box-with-people-going-mad-in-it kind of rock and roll record,” the kind where you “put the red light on play and hope to get the magical take.” It is, instead, what he calls an “uptown pop album” a la Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, carefully composed in advance, complete with intriguingly astringent horn parts, plus strings and elaborate backing vocals. “You work out what you’re gonna play,” says Costello, who learned to read and write music in the early ’90s, “and then you go in the studio with confidence.”
Costello is not fond of critics’ habit of comparing new projects to old ones, but he does cop to doing it himself: “When we started out, I said, ‘If we could get the scope of Imperial Bedroom with the romanticism and beauty of Painted From Memory, we would have something.’ But does this record sound like either of those? Not really.”
The title track and the ballad “Photographs Can Lie” were both written with Costello’s Painted From Memory collaborator Burt Bacharach, who even joined the Imposters in the studio – Costello, it emerges, has been working with Bacharach for years on a musical that has yet to get off the ground. (“We ended up with an accumulation of slow, melancholy, intense ballads, and I guess that just scared the proposed producers because it didn’t involve any tap dancing.”) Costello tried to get Bacharach to write a bridge for another song, “Stripping Paper,” but Bacharach told him the song didn’t need any additions. “That was a pretty good compliment,” says Costello, who did get Bacharach to suggest a small harmonic tweak to another track, “He’s Given Me Things.”
Costello also wrote a song with Carole King, “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” which ends up resembling early Steely Dan, at least when the female backing singers kick in. “It never occurred to me it sounded like that,” he says. “I mean, I like that group. I particularly like the early records. People always say that! ‘I like your earlier records, the early angry ones.'”
Look Now, which Costello co-produced with Sebastian Krys, previously best known for his work in the Latin pop world, is also intended as something of a showcase for the versatility of the Imposters, Costello’s longtime backing band – which is, of course, his original band, the Attractions, with a different bass player, Davey Faragher. But forty years after This Year’s Model, their first album together, the changes don’t stop there. “This is a different group than the group I started out with,” Costello says. We have strengths in different areas than that first group, because obviously, the three of us that have played together for forty years should’ve learned something, you know?”
“We should have gathered some things,” he continues, “and maybe put aside some other qualities of music that seemed all important when we started out. If you just stay with the same playbook, it wouldn’t be very interesting. And we’re all different people than we were forty years ago. Why wouldn’t we be? This eternal youth idea in rock and roll is nonsensical, really, ’cause you should want to reflect things that have happened in your life.” Plus, Faragher is a strong singer, which opens up possibilities for harmonies. “We didn’t have any singers in the band,” Costello says. “It’s arguable whether I was a singer early on.”
Costello recently sat for a full Rolling Stone Interview, captured on video; stay tuned for the rest of the conversation later this year.