What a long, strange trip it’s been for Elvis Costello. He started his career at the dawn of England’s punk movement, quickly establishing himself as the most articulate of his generation’s so-called Angry Young Men, a willfully anti-establishment figure who looked like the illegitimate love-child of Buddy Holly and Morticia Addams. Between 1977 and 1982, he released six albums of original material that touched on elements of pop, rock, country and soul, each of which can legitimately be called a masterpiece. Since then, he has released more than 20 albums, worked with a who’s who list of musical royalty that includes Burt Bacharach, Tony Bennett, Jerry Garcia and Paul McCartney, written a ballet score based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a chamber opera built around the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, and hosted two seasons of a musical chat show that was co-produced by Elton John and featured Costello interviewing and jamming with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bono.
His latest release, The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, is his sixth live album, but his first with the Imposters, the decades-old trio which includes two-thirds of his original band the Attractions (keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas), along with new bass player Danny Faraghar (in place of Bruce Thomas, against whom Costello holds a long-standing grudge). The titular Songbook is a giant spinning wheel that features 40 songs and is spun by audience members to determine the night’s set list. It’s a clever gimmick Costello first introduced in 1986, and dusted off last year on its 25th anniversary. The resulting album is a nice souvenir for anyone who has attended one of the Spinning Songbook shows, but there’s not a single Costello song on the disc that improves on its original studio version.
The main problem is Costello’s aging voice. Gone is the bittersweet upper register that made his vocal performances so moving on ballads like “Alison” and “Almost Blue”. Thankfully, neither of those songs is attempted here, but the slower songs he does perform, including the magnificent Bacharach collaboration “God Give Me Strength”, miss that suppleness. Like Van Morrison in recent years, Costello tries to cover-up by oversinging, bellowing when he’d be better served with a whisper or a gentle vocal caress. When he attacks his savage love/hate-song “I Want You”, his vocal histrionics — screaming “Did he call your name out” over and over — made me want to slap the side of the turntable to get the song back on track. And when he tries on classic rockers like “Radio, Radio” and “Mystery Dance”, he sounds like the aural equivalent of a middle-aged man stuffing himself into the tuxedo he wore to his senior prom. Maybe it’s just biographical dissonance, but it’s hard to take a middle-aged TV star seriously when he sings, on “Radio, Radio”, “I want to bite the hand that feeds me / I want to bite that hand so badly / I want to make them wish they’d never seen me” — even if the song itself is more relevant now than ever.
The best tracks here are the covers, which don’t have the reference points of Costello studio versions to measure up against. He brings an edgy intensity to his old friend and producer Nick Lowe’s pub rock classic “Heart of the City” which Lowe himself could never muster, and a sense of tenderness and regret to the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” that puts the original, somewhat affected Jagger vocal to shame. These fresh, uniquely Costello-ey looks at classic songs make me wish he’d included more covers in the set: The Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Girl” are both on the Spinning Songbook wheel pictured on the album’s cover, and he has also played powerful versions of Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “License to Kill” in recent years. Any of those tracks would have been preferable to yet another live rendition of “Watching the Detectives”, which takes up almost seven minutes of space here.
It’s funny: fifteen years ago, I’d have hunted down a bootleg of this set and gladly paid a premium to get it. But it’s hard not to feel that Costello himself should do better than the bootleggers. Put this album on in your car, or while you’re jogging on the treadmill, and you’ll be happy to hear any of its 16 tracks,. But if you’re a longtime Costello fan, it’s never going to be the first disc you pull off the shelf.