Among the credits for Elvis Costello and The Imposters’ Look Now is a simple acknowledgment: In Memphis – Mary Isobel O’Brien. The onetime Ms. O’Brien, of course, is better known as Dusty Springfield, and the credit from Declan MacManus and his band makes clear the inspiration for this stunning assemblage of what the artist, correctly, deems “uptown pop.” Dusty in Memphis is one of the benchmarks of that style: pop with a dash of soul, or is it soul with a dash of pop? It doesn’t hurt that Costello’s collaborators on Look Now include two of the songwriters represented on that 1968 classic, Burt Bacharach and Carole King. Few tunesmiths could stand tall alongside those giants, but Costello once again proves himself to be a member of that rarefied class. And indeed, “class” is one of the qualities that best defines Look Now. “Penny Lane” horns and Philly soul strings recur in the album’s plush production by the artist and Latin music veteran Sebastian Krys, but Look Now is much more than an exercise in nostalgia and pastiche. As the title implies, it’s very much of the present, and the work of a master storyteller who’s learned more than a few things from the past.
While Costello generally refrains from such comparisons, he has confirmed his intention to meld the expansive musical landscape of 1982’s Geoff Emerick-produced Imperial Bedroom with the beauty of 1998’s joint album with Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory. This set of 12 songs finds the balance between the quiet and the clattering, the sprawling and the intimate. At its heart are the three songs co-authored with Bacharach, intended for an as-yet-unproduced stage musical version of Painted from Memory. Costello is the rare lyricist who can be impressionistic and still emotionally illuminating; there are clues seeded throughout “Don’t Look Now,” “Photographs Can Lie,” and “He’s Given Me Things” of the musical’s storyline, written by sitcom king Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory).
Bacharach’s recognizably sensitive piano (a true extension of the composer’s singular voice) and unexpected melody lines grace the beautifully pensive “Don’t Look Now” and ruminative “Photographs Can Lie.” The latter is flecked with bossa nova, underscoring the irony of the poignant reflection. These incisive meditations lay the singer’s feelings bare, aided by the beautifully stripped-down arrangements played by The Imposters. “He’s Given Me Things,” the most elaborate of the compositions, has strings arranged by Costello, but otherwise, the accompaniment is raw – a stark contrast from the lavishly orchestrated Painted from Memory. It’s a pure gut-punch of a performance. Notably, Costello sings these quiet stunners from a female perspective, adding another unexpected layer to the dramatic portraits in miniature. (This is a repeated motif on Look Now.) His expressive and impassioned voice has never sounded better.
Unlike the three Bacharach co-writes which all bear his sophisticated, elegant sensibility, one might be hard-pressed to identify the stamp of Carole King on “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter.” Costello and King composed the song in the 1990s but it’s lain dormant other than some live performances between 1999 and 2004. Rather than channeling the spirits of the Brill Building or Tapestry, it’s a sleek, funky number with shades of Steely Dan. (For those familiar with the live version, the production here is radically different and breathes new life into the song.) Yet King’s longtime hallmarks of craft and melodicism are there, gilded with insinuating, brash horns and a vocal group. It’s all held together thanks to the finely-honed interplay between The Imposters. One only wishes the songwriters had written more together.
Costello’s solo songs are every bit as stunning, and stunningly varied, as his collaborations. The characters inhabiting these vignettes are full-blooded, fascinating, and flawed. “Under Lime,” which musically recalls the edginess of “Man Out of Time,” picks up the story of “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” from 2010’s National Ransom. It’s a sordid and unflinching tale of a vaudevillian long past his prime, yet its brassy melody contrasts the lyric’s dark themes which will seem particularly relevant in the #MeToo era. “Stripping Paper,” another tale of a crumbled relationship in a domestic setting, showcases the mature songwriter at his finest. As the narrator rekindles painful memories as she strips wallpaper, it’s both powerfully specific and completely universal. The melody betrays Bacharach’s influence on Costello, with Steve Nieve’s light, fleet piano flourishes also recalling the maestro. (Costello asked Bacharach to pen a bridge for the song, but Bacharach demurred, likely sensing that his friend had already nailed the tune.)
R&B comes to the fore on the lithe “Unwanted Number,” written for Allison Anders’ 1996 film Grace of My Heart (the same film that premiered Bacharach and Costello’s “God Give Me Strength”) and performed by the girl group For Real as the fictional Luminaries. Even more excitingly, “Suspect My Tears,” dating back to Costello’s live shows of 1999-2004, finally gets its day in the sun. It’s a deliciously dramatic slice of soul-pop, with a chorus that lodges itself firmly in one’s head and happily refuses to get out.
On the pop end of the spectrum, Costello delivers an aching anthem for the age of Brexit in “I Let the Sun Go Down,” with a Beatle-esque lilt. “Me and Mrs. Hush” offers a touch of noir imagery not to mention a danceable beat – second only to the lightly Latin, altogether irresistible rhythms of “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me.” Nieve, bassist Davey Faragher, and drummer Pete Thomas have long been one of the most versatile combos in rock; with these diverse musical settings, it’s clear that there’s little the ace Imposters can’t do with vigor and intensity.
A four-song EP, Regarde Maintenant, is included with the deluxe CD, vinyl, and digital editions of Look Now. Aside from giving listeners to the opportunity to hear Costello croon in French on “Adieu Paris (L’Envie Des Etoiles),” the EP boasts the physical premiere of the touching, rueful ballad “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way,” penned for the motion picture Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. The artist’s mastery of orchestration truly shines on the hypnotic and suitably cinematic tune. Regarde Maintenant also presents the stately, spare, and beguiling snapshot of “Isabelle in Tears” and the story of “a husband collector of impeccable taste” entitled “The Final Mrs. Curtain.” The latter, in particular, would have fit comfortably on Look Now beside “Mr. and Mrs. Hush” and “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me.”
For decades now, “rock” has been too confining a word for Elvis Costello. With the grand Look Now, he has brought the lessons learned from immersing himself into country, Americana, hip-hop, soul, jazz, classical, and rock-and-roll into the most catholic of all genres, pop. The result is adult, literate, and artful. As ever, his aim is true.