Review: As Elvis Costello Grows Up, the Pace Slows Down with Sophisticated ‘Look Now’




Elvis Costello and The Imposters - Courtesy image
Elvis Costello and The Imposters - Courtesy image

By DAN MACINTOSH

When Elvis Costello began recording in the late 1970s, he was labeled an angry young man. Now, in 2018, he’s neither angry (well, at least not as angry) nor young. His latest album, Look Now (Concord), is a throwback of sorts to the more sophisticated music he first made with the 1982 album Imperial Bedroom.

That shiny pop masterpiece represented Costello’s move away from punkish rants, and his drift into writing songs more representative of jazz era standard bearers, like the Gershwins and Cole Porter. This new album’s sophistication is due, in part, to the fact that many of its songs were originally intended for highbrow Broadway musicals. The presence of Carole King (who cowrote “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” with Costello) and Burt Bacharach (who cowrote three of these songs and can also be heard playing piano on the album), are also primary factors in the release’s overall classic pop feel. It’s a fine album — but is labeled as such with cautious reservations.

Listen to Look Now on Spotify:

From Punk to ‘Burnt Sugar’

Many initially fell in love with Costello because of the man’s smartly angry punk-inspired rock songs. Even though some members of his current band, The Imposters, are also original Attractions — his first band — little of this album conjures up sonic reminders of Costello’s breakthrough early days. Nothing even comes close to the vitriol expelled via “Lip Service,” back from Costello’s best album, 1978’s This Year’s Model.

Instead, there are moments during “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” particularly the girly backing vocal section on the chorus, that sound like vintage, saucy and sarcastic ’70s Steely Dan music. Opener “Under Lime,” begins with a gently swinging acoustic piano part. Back in the day, though, this song would have likely been revved up to “Clubland” speed. Costello is a big boy now. Is he also slowing down?

Therefore, should fans be disappointed in Costello’s current classic pop demeanor? Johnny Lydon likely doesn’t spit out “God save the Queen” anymore, for instance, nor are many old school punk rockers as loud and boisterous as they were during their younger days. The man is 64, after all, and is merely acting his age, right? However, Costello whistles — yes whistles — during “I Let the Sun Go Down.” Can you even picture Lydon whistling a happy tune? Blasphemy, right?

Elvis Costello - Photo by Paul VanDerWerf
Elvis Costello – Photo by Paul VanDerWerf

Costello’s Singing has Improved with Age

With that said, though, Costello wrote “Shipbuilding,” perhaps his best protest song, as a sort of modern-day jazz ballad. So really, the greatest fault one might find with Look Now is not its style so much, as it is the project’s nearly overall lack of bite in Costello’s lyrics. Oftentimes, he sounds a little like a declawed cat, instead. 

One of the album’s most rhythmic tracks is “Mr. & Mrs. Hush,” which features soulful backing vocals that give it an enjoyable Motown-ish feel and make it one that wouldn’t have sounded all that out of place on 1980’s Get Happy. In addition to this song’s Temptations-esque vocals, there’s also some wonderful horn play going on. To his credit, Costello is now a much better singer. During his early career, something like “Suspect My Tears” would have cried out for Costello to shop that lyric out to a real singer. His recording here, however, is simply beautiful. Likely, nobody could do it better. 

All this ageist criticism might come off like silly sour grapes, at least when comparing Costello’s thoughtful lyrics with the drivel that passes for contemporary pop music these days. Perhaps we should just be glad a sophisticate like Costello is still in the game. We’re living in turbulent times, so we can only hope Costello will bring that great sarcastic noise next time.

Costello plays The Wiltern on Nov. 29.