For more than a decade, Elvis Costello has been toiling away in the gap that separates blind ambition and tedious experimentation -- a willing slave to the concepts and conceits of high art, a poster boy for creative indulgence, able to rock out only with other people's songs. In the years since the legendary album streak that began with his first (1977's My Aim Is True) and ran to his sixth (1981's Trust), and in the years following his last really good album -- 1986's King of America -- Costello has tried just about everything. He's dabbled in New Orleans R&B and Broadway-style pop; he's written soundtracks for BBC television and, along with the Brodsky Quartet, composed a song cycle for string quartet and voice; he's penned some focused and trenchant commentaries on politics in England and the U.S. and some infuriatingly obscure screeds on the politics of the bedroom; he's regrouped with his old bandmates in the Attractions after an eight-year separation; performed with the Chieftains, Tony Bennett, and Jimmy Cliff; and written more than a dozen songs with Paul McCartney. Through every move, Costello has, to quote one of his recent song titles, tripped at every step, oblivious to the ponderous, pretentious wreckage he was making of his legacy.
Or so it seemed. Early into All This Useless Beauty, Costello's most recent album, a song arrives that acknowledges all those wrong moves, all those misguided efforts. It's a propulsive, low-key confessional titled "Little Atoms," built around not much more than a skeletal hook, some almost ambient sound effects, and soft pitter-patting percussion. "I took my better nature out, drowned it in the babbling brook," sings the jaded, aging songwriter of his past follies. "Took the blossom of my youth and blew it all to smithereens."
With those two lines, Costello summarizes masterfully and cogently the wrongheaded journey that's led him from the fussy baroque-pop contrivances on 1989's Spike and 1991's Mighty Like a Rose) to the half-baked covers on last year's pointless Kojak Variety. There is no statement of apology anywhere in "Little Atoms," and, typically, Costello shows little remorse for his more dubious efforts. (Indeed, at one point in "Little Atoms" he tells all comers "If you don't like my song, then you can just go to hell.") Still, just the acknowledgement is enough, and there's really no need for an apology; All This Useless Beauty is good enough to atone for all of Costello's past creative sins.
Gone are the weighty and overarranged sonic novellas of 1994's Brutal Youth, onto which he crammed songs with cumbersome melodies and winding lyrical turns that dwarfed some nice contributions by Costello's returning Attractions. Gone is the kitchen-sink musical approach that made Spike sound like a compilation that pulled together the unlikely likes of Weber, Weill, and Lennon. Once again, at long last, Costello is writing tight, coherent songs A ballads, mostly, that move with a slinky, soulful grace bolstered by the sympathetic accompaniment of the Attractions. Similarly, some of the best songs here are shot through with a kind of sympathy and compassion that's been rare in Costello's recent highly misanthropic work. During the smoldering torch song "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?" he throws tough questions at both men and women ("Why can't a woman be just what she seems?/Must she be tarnished by men who can only be men in their dreams?"), while the title cut follows a woman who isn't "a sweetheart, a plaything, or pet," and who suffers in spite of that strength at the hands of a boorish partner.
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Mostly, though, Costello is the one doing the suffering, and throughout All This Useless Beauty he soaks up the spillage of a perpetually broken heart. At times he rages; other times he simply wonders what the hell went wrong. He's left bruised and manipulated by a "Distorted Angel" as the band turns out a creepy, percolating soul groove, and he's tossed aside by a social-climbing tart in the frantically paced rockabilly stomper "Starting to Come to Me." On "The Other End of the Telescope," a snapshot from the aftermath of a breakup that Costello co-wrote with Aimee Mann in the late Eighties, pianist Steve Nieve echoes the bewilderment in Costello's vocals with gorgeous, copy-cat flourishes.
Although the intimate dramatics of the album are brought to a close with an anthem of escape ("I Want to Vanish," recorded with the Brodsky Quartet), Beauty's finest moments stare coldly and intently into the face of romantic hardship A and rock like hell in the process. "You Bowed Down" is the kind of gloriously accessible and hook-laden song Costello has been avoiding for years, wherein he weds the majestic sweep of "Oliver's Army" to the Byrdsian force of the jangly "Veronica." It's all so damn catchy in its ABBA-ness that you have to listen a few times before you hear the pain and indignation in his aching vocal. Both "Complicated Shadows" and "It's Time" build slowly. The former evolves from a two-chord guitar riff to a crashing barrage of distortion, feedback, and haywire percussion, with Costello wailing amid the cathartic chaos after turning out lines of poisonous brilliance such as "Though the fury's hot and hard/I still see a cold graveyard/There's a solitary stone that's got your name on."
"It's Time," a twisted rewrite of the Drifters' 1960 soul hit "This Magic Moment," unfolds with less clamor than "Shadows," but despite its lightly shuffling hip-hop beat the song is no less acrimonious. Arguably the most forthright song of Costello's career, "It's Time," more than anything else on All This Useless Beauty, marks a return to what the man used to do so well A turn hate and scorn into tough and angry rock and roll. Moving from first to third person, Costello sketches out the necessity of an impending parting of romantic ways, and the venom in his words is unmistakable: "This magic moment concluding our fate/But if you do have to leave me/Who will I have left to hate?"
Like a valentine scrawled on the back of a hand grenade, "It's Time" and All This Useless Beauty announce in no uncertain terms that, after too long wandering around the landscape of his pretentious concerns, Elvis has entered the building.