Elvis Costello hits a peak, with a little help from his friends

[20 May 2008]

By Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

Elvis Costello and the Imposters, “Momofuku” (Lost Highway) - The first play felt curiously tired for an album cut so suddenly and spontaneously, but I later put that down to a veteran’s curse: This far into such a lengthy career Costello is such a consummate pro that he’s permanently trapped by self-made forms no matter how many musical guises he tries on. Never boring, he’s nonetheless not as consistently inspired as a longtime follower might hope for, and it’s become all too easy for us to spot what he’s recycling out of his songbook.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that, for all the instant appeal of this one’s rough plug-in-and-play feel (echoing “The Delivery Man,” “Brutal Youth,” “Blood and Chocolate”) and its wash of young guest-star vocals (Jenny Lewis, Johnathan Rice, “Farmer” Dave Scher of Beachwood Sparks fame), my first response was skeptical. The roiling gallop that yields to a harmonious stomp in “Turpentine” and the snide, seemingly off-the-cuff sure-shot “Go Away” are unexpected, undeniable strokes, many thanks to Ms. Lewis’ airy but forceful counterpoint. Those rank among his most arresting, while “My Three Sons,” with the gentle hidalguera of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo assisting the assured Messrs. Thomas, Nieve and Faragher, finds the wordsmith at his plaintive, analytical best.

And still ... haven’t I heard him do things like “No Hiding Place” and “Drum & Bone” before? Wasn’t “Mr. Feathers” on Spike? Was “Flutter & Wow” left over from the Allen Toussaint sessions? I dig the gender-bending other-woman rebuke of “Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve,” but as the title half-suggests, is he once again trying to cram too much wit and too many convoluted (if ever-clever) rhymes into too short a meter?

What else is new, I thought - here’s another late-career “comeback.”

At least that’s how this would have been ballyhooed by the still-delusional music biz a decade ago - less, actually. But now they know this won’t cause a post-Hall of Fame surge as much as he wouldn’t want it be seen as a revival anyway; as has been proven lately with Van Morrison, Ray Davies, even Bruce Springsteen, if you scale sales results to perspective, no one follows Costello’s every new move except for the die-hards.

And how much folks like us get out of his first characteristic (read: rock) record in four years depends on how much we’ve taken to all his other returns-to-form. By the second and third spin I had decided this was surely as snappy and strong as the spotty, overrated “Brutal Youth,” even as good as “When I Was Cruel,” a diffuse but underrated (by me, anyway) set that tried too hard. By the fifth play, however, I had listened hard and deep enough to feel like I was observing from a fly-on-the-wall spot in the studio - the same sensation that set apart “The Delivery Man” and the earlier “King of America.”

Then it all fell into place for me: If he is recycling - and how could something so sudden and spontaneous avoid resting on routine? - he’s doing it damn convincingly. It’s a shame the biz is so broken, ‘cause this second release for Lost Highway (that saving grace of record labels) is precisely the sort of old-meets-new collaboration that might help Costello ‘08 find as much favor with younger ears as, oh, Costello ‘78 (if they’re even finding that).

Named after Momofuku Ando, the man who invented cup noodles - I agree with AllMusic.com that a bowl of ramen springing to life is the proper metaphor here - the album came to be when Costello turned up to offer some vocals to Lewis’ second solo set ... only to discover the Imposters already on hand as backing band. A few tunes were cut, then a few more - and presto: an almost-primo Costello dozen crackling with raw energy like he rarely exhibits anymore and packing generation-blending selling points.

If it doesn’t ever rise to the level of “Trust” or “Imperial Bedroom,” never mind “This Year’s Model,” well, Costellophiles already know nothing he ever does really will. Expecting another “Lipstick Vogue” or “Oliver’s Army” from a guy who these days pitches for Lexus is foolish and unfair. That he still gets this worked up and still makes it seem effortless forgives a few slack lyrics. That this is as striking as he’s been in 20 years, when he’s hardly been slouching (seriously, don’t pass up “The Delivery Man”) - that tells you he’s peaking in a whole new way. (Grade: A-minus)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/elvis-costello-hits-a-peak-with-a-little-help-from-his-friends/