ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS
Look Now (Concord)
On an album which leans to elegance and restraint over boisterous, which introduces a tender, fragile ballad at track two to let you know exactly where this might be heading, and where Burt Bacharach leads the band from his piano stool for two songs, there might be cause for you to see Under Lime, which in some ways connects the Imposters with the barrelling Attractions who backed Elvis Costello on their farewell recording, Brutal Youth, as an incongruous opening track.
If you’ve been reading the interview with Elvis Costello this past week you’ll know that he has singled out the ballad-heavy, oft-orchestrated, sometimes opaque and thickened classicism of Imperial Bedroom (the height of his imperial phase of 1978-82) and its second cousin Painted From Memory (his 2000 collaboration with Bacharach) as the touchstone albums for this new record.
What then of Under Lime’s parping horns and trilling flutes, and an eager choir doing their own parping – the combination used here as a theme for a possible television series? The ones wound up by a coiled Davey Faragher bassline, which occasionally struts forward, and pursued by the snapping at their heels drums of Pete Thomas.
And that Costello’s vocals push up and out, especially when singing from the perspective of the louche louse of a veteran performer invited onto a 1950s television show as a kind of last hurrah for a career long past its modest peak?
Well, actually, it is a perfect companion to that early ballad, Don’t Look Now, and the muted Shirley Bassey of Dishonor The Stars, and the scratch R&B of Mr & Mrs Hush for that matter. What they all have is a freshness, a palpable energy of enjoyment in their performance and verve in arrangement, bringing in a sense of renewal in other words. And unity.
These songs may be drawn from decades apart, from differing projects, and from multiple co-writers (as well as the two Bacharach/Costello numbers, the sophisticated ‘70s pop of Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter was written with Carole King more than 20 years ago). They may also veer across a number of styles: to those already mentioned you can add the beefed up girl group stylings of Unwanted Number, which was originally written for a girl group in the film Grace Of My Heart, the Rodgers and Hart-ish dress-shirt-and-cufflinks shape of I Let The Sun Go Down, and the swelling Philly soul of Suspect My Tears, which even throws in a falsetto climax.
But rather than some showcase for songwriting and performance versatility, they share a clear preference for storytelling, a sensitivity to emotion that renders their characters in flesh rather than abstract, and a tone that is pitched somewhere between curiosity and wistfulness, by a vocalist and band in complete synch.
Take Why Won’t Heaven Help Me, for example. In one sense it is a minor track on the record, a bit of early ‘60s cabaret swing with some late ’60 vocal group overlays, and casually thrown lyrics. But it is often true that an album’s quality can be judged by its weakest moments.
Here, the Imposters glide into place, lightly touching each surface, with Costello’s vocals working in much the same manner. The mood is velvet jackets at cocktail hour. Picture the lightly mugging crooner EC in the filmclip for Only Flame In Town (win a date with Elvis or Daryl Hall!), set before a little combo on a Bacharach-helmed television show.
It all feels enjoyably Light Entertainment. Yet there’s a gently persuasive feel to it all, the beguiling sheen of faux sophistication actually turning out to be more than veneer. What’s more there’s a bit of a kick to the lyrics that loops back to earlier high points on the album as the narrator – is it another of the female characters who Costello adopts on the album? – asks “Remember the thrill that followed praise/While dressed for a lover’s gaze/The moment when you saw through the lies of older men”.
We’re back with the young woman being ogled in Under Lime, yes, (“Jimmie was dreaming as she uncrossed her legs/He shuttered his eyes discreetly/And he thought of a drummer/And considered a snare”), but even more so with a more complex situation in Don’t Look Now.
In this song a woman’s mixed response to the look of a man – discomfort, attraction, projection – plays out like shifting emotions on a face while she says “I see you looking at me looking at how you’re looking at me”.
“Don’t look now, don’t you dare/I’m not decent, go sit over there,” it begins; “I said don’t peek/At the sway of my dance/And the length of my limb/And the blush of my cheek,” she comes to say; “I’ll sit here/Silent and still/See if I am breaking your will,” she concludes.
The excoriating Costello doesn’t really figure on Look Now, even with the pathetic figure of Jimmie the not so beloved entertainer, or the bathetic character in I Let The Sun Go Down, who confesses during “the duty to which I’ve sworn” that he’s fouled his national nest, his “brilliant career … going nowhere” because I’m the man who lost the British Empire/Yes, I’m the one, I let the sun go down”.
Not exactly tramping the dirt down on Maggie T’s grave is it? But then the sympathy, or understanding, isn’t exactly new either for him, despite the early reputation. Though it has rarely been as empathetic as in the slow turning ballad Photographs Can Lie, a song about the equally slow turn of after-effects of lies through a family.
That though is in keeping with an album playing its cards with a sense of gracefulness that shines through in moments assertive as much as subdued. After all the elements of classic pop writing, and just as importantly classic pop playing, don’t depend on whether we’re in a sweaty room, a supper club or a café for narrative spinners.
It’s not just craft but touch, not just energy but sensitivity. On Look Now Costello & The Imposters have both.