In his 28th studio album, Elvis Costello revisits the brash and angry territories of his first three albums, collaborates with country legends Loretta Lynn and Roseanne Cash and flirts with more genres than you can count on one hand. Still, you have to wonder, are these great songs or do they just remind you of great songs?
Costello reconvenes the Impostors for Momofuku, which is two-thirds of the way towards assembling the late 1970s to mid-1980s Attractions—and a big part of his best work. Steve Nieves, whose trilling Vox defined hits like “Pump It Up” and “(I Don’t Want to) Go to Chelsea” (and whose classically-influenced grand piano contributed sheen of refinement to later songs), is back and seemingly same as ever. Pete Thomas, behind the kit since 1977’s “Watching the Detectives” has returned to provide the pounding tension behind torrid “Turpentine”, the steady gospel swing of “Flutter and Wow”, the explosive rock rhythms of “No Hiding Place”. Davey Faragher, who joined for 2002’s back-to-rock When I Was Cruel, does some wonderfully subtle bass work, urgent and pulsing on “Drum & Bone”, Latin slinky on the undulating “Harry Worth”, full of sensual slides on “No Hiding Place”. And, then, of course, there is Costello himself, returning in fabulous, hoarsely sardonic voice, slashing away on every variety of guitar and slipping in the kind of intricate wordplay that led him to declare himself “rock and roll’s scrabble champion” in the early 1980s.
All of which means that Elvis Costello, 30 years on since “Less than Zero”, sounds very much like Elvis Costello, abrasively intelligent, rhythmically unstoppable, harsh and soulful at the same time and, er, able to leap genres in a single bound. “American Gangster Time”, the standout among this disc’s rock songs, is a dark-toned triumph, its pessimistic imagery (the song opens with a pretty woman on her knees exchanging sex for drugs) hitched to exuberant rock riffs and a soaring chorus. Nieves’ Vox Continental alone would be enough to transport you back in time 30 years, trilling and squealing above the melody, even without the complex image-heavy lyrics that Costello spits and stutters. And yet, here’s a question: if you didn’t already long for exactly that sound, due to layers of personal history and three decades of affiliation with the Elvis Costello enterprise, would it have the same impact? Would “American Gangster Time” stop you cold the way that “Accidents Will Happen” or “Red Shoes” or “Watching the Detectives did all those years ago? It’s hard to say, but I’m leaning towards probably not.
Hardcore first-three-albums fans will lock onto the first three tracks of Momofuku, which hew most closely to the classic new wave Elvis sound. Starting with “Harry Worth”—a loungy, Latin-rhythmed stalk through images of a ruined marriage (“He said, do you hear that noise? Well, that once was our song.”)—the album turns more contemplative and slower, tapping into mid-period Costello fascinations with jazz, pop and country. There is a warm and touching song dedicated to Costello’s children (“My Three Song”) and a scratchy soul ballad that is subtly, obliquely about the garden of Eden (“Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve”). Costello, a champion collaborator, brings in two of the first ladies of country to write lyrics for him, Roseanne Cash for the grand “Song With Rose” and Loretta Lynn for “Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve.” Dave Scher of the Beachwood Sparks sits in on pedal or lap steel in four of 12 cuts, lending an indefinable rural melancholy to the proceedings.
Scher is also one member of a high-profile vocal “supergroup”—others include Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice—whose airy wooh-oohs and aaahs dot otherwise raw and uncompromising songs. I have nothing against these artists, personally, as singers or as musicians, but they get in the way. “Turpentine” almost sinks under the weight of their embellishments, its raucous, guitar-and-drum frenzy slipping under a too-sweet doo-woppy refrain of “Turpentine….” You can admire Costello’s willingness to reach out to the next generation, to incorporate them into his work, but it doesn’t really work. If anything the backing vocals obscure his edge, and Elvis Costello’s edge is something worth preserving.
In the end, Momofuku is the kind of more-than-solid effort that reaffirms a great artists’ relevance, but doesn’t quite prove it all over again. It allows Elvis Costello to rampage over knotty rock tunes with a seasoned band, and to breathe soul and artistry into down-tempo meditations. It may not add a single classic to the 20 to 30 great songs under the Elvis Costello byline, but it reminds us of them, and that’s a good thing.