Elvis Costello isn’t just a musician, and he’s not just a songwriter. He’s a storyteller (and he’s got a 670-page autobiography to prove it). On Oct. 12, he released his first album in five years, Look Now, which tells stories of individuals, of couples, and of himself, and perfectly captures various states of emotional vulnerability.
The first track, “Under Lime,” is a great example of how Costello manipulates narration. The song follows Jimmie, a washed-up performer first introduced in Costello’s 2010 track, “Jimmie Standing In The Rain.” It acts like a sequel, but also introduces the general despair that continues throughout the album and is often present in Costello’s music.
The three singles released in anticipation of the album—“Under Lime,” “Unwanted Number,” and “Suspect My Tears”—are probably its best tracks, as they should be. They stand out from the other songs on the album and provide a taste of the musical variety within Look Now. Costello also released a deluxe version of the album, which includes four bonus tracks: “Isabelle in Tears,” “Adieu Paris (L’Envie Des Etoiles),” “The Final Mrs. Curtain,” and “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way.”
Costello does a great job matching the tone of the music to the mood of the lyrics: He’s a dark lyricist, in a tragically poetic yet colloquial way. He sings about intimate human truths and profoundly identifying flaws and faults in humanity, such as greed, evident in the repeated image of the color green in “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” and lost love—see “Photographs Can Lie.” He takes what he knows and what he likes, and finds a way to make it completely his own.
An unsurprising—yet apt—continuation of his past releases, Look Now musically exhibits a variety of influences. Yet this album differs a bit from his past music: With a strong projection of percussive instruments including drums and cymbals, as well as prominent relaxed piano lines, there’s a vaguely jazzy tone that supplements Costello’s usual pop-rock sound. These distinct instrumental lines vary greatly between songs: Sequentially, each track in Look Now sounds completely distinct from its successor.
Every melody is different, obviously influenced by various artists and genres, like the Beatles (“Under Lime”) as well as R&B and jazz (“Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” and “Suspect My Tears”). Yet he dilutes the rock genre with synthetic manipulations in “Unwanted Number” and even distinctly mimics Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer” with very similar percussion and keyboard lines in the instrumental intro to “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me.” Still, in a typical manner of Costello’s music, these tracks feel like they’re made for movies.
Maybe it’s his expression: His sharp enunciation combined with the tone of his voice, lilting with his British accent, intrinsically conveys a sense of pain and hurt that accentuates the songs’ negative themes. Maybe it’s the narrative pattern, the story inherent in them all. Or maybe it’s his melodies that are so distinct and emotional and rhythmic. No matter what it is, Costello writes tracks that are meant to accompany an image. And many of his songs certainly do: In 2012, he released an album that consists entirely of his songs that have been featured in films. One of the four bonus tracks, “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” follows suit, having been in the movie Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, about American actress Gloria Grahame.
There’s a lot of emphasis on looking and not looking throughout the album. With its title, we’re instructed to “Look Now” at negative human emotion through the album’s persistent themes of loss, deceit, and bitterness echoing in every song. Yet the second track on Look Now is called “Don’t Look Now.” These deliberately contradictory titles introduce a display of humanity at its most vulnerable. It’s real, it’s honest, it’s raw. But to be frank, it’s made for old people. Obviously, Costello’s aging, and he’s making sure that his music ages with him and with his audience. He’s doing what he’s good at, appealing to the people that have always listened to his music, and that’s not a bad thing. Although Look Now might be an unsurprising move in Costello’s sound, it’s the familiarity of the album, its likeness to his previous work, that allows it to be what it is.
Featured Image by Concord Records