On Repeat: Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello’s latest album, Momofuku, spent several weeks clouded in mystery; not only was its existence confirmed not too long after Costello swore off recording, and not only was it initially set to be released on MP3 and vinyl, not on CD, but… well, it’s called Momofuku, which was initially thought to be a not to one of Costello’s favorite eateries but was later revealed to be the name of the guy who invented instant noodle soup. With such a strange and cloudy lead-up to its release, it’s not too surprising that the music itself is some of the most subtle and sophisticated of Costello’s career. But, as I’ve been learning, sophisticated doesn’t necessarily mean indirect. Give it a few listens and it gradually grows in stature to be the best and hardest-hitting Costello album in twenty years (if we exclude his collaborations with Allen Toussaint and Burt Bacharach), an album of considerable charm and intrigue.
In fact, the things that make it so great are the very things that make it a little slow to work its magic. For the first time in ages, it’s a Costello album without a concept or ideology– it’s simply a great set of songs, written and recorded with no grand ambitions beyond the simple joy of making music. So, coming on the heels of years upon years of genre exercises and concept albums, it initially seems a little slight, but in reality it’s anything but. In fact, it’s the richest, the tightest, and the most joyfully eclectic set Costello’s cut since All This Useless Beauty, and his best rock album since the early 1980s. It’s also the best summation yet of his many talents: The masterful craft and sophistication of his classical and jazz endeavors, the energy and venom of his rock and roll days, the big sing-along hooks of his best pop albums, and two country songs that are as fine as any he’s ever written… it’s all here, and it’s all performed with the kind of effortlessness and joy that only come from a veteran musician who’s doing what he does best.
But it’s not just that it’s a joyful recording– it’s also a very contented recording. Sure, Costello shows flashes of the tongue-lashing anger that made him famous, particularly on the opening trilogy of songs, but there’s also a surprising and affecting tenderness here, be it on the ode to parenting “My Three Sons,” in his soul-searching and spiritual co-write with Roseanne Cash, “Song with Rose,” or in the funny and compassionate tale of trouble in Eden, “Pardon Me, Madame, My Name is Eve.” And even after all that, he reminds us on the last track, the infectious pop song “Go Away,” that he’s still got enough snarl in him to write kiss-offs like no one else.
No Elvis Costello album has covered this much ground since Trust, and, arguably, no Elvis Costello album has ever expressed such a wide range of emotions and such a complex tapestry of experiences. It adds up to an album that’s not just impressive for its craft, but genuinely fun, addictive, and moving, if only you give it a little time to work its considerable charms.