Elvis Costello would have made a great rock critic. He has all the essential qualities — strong opinions, smart mouth, big ego. Plus, he spends entirely too much time inside his own head.
Like “Kojak Variety,” his 1995 album of obscure covers, and “The Juliet Letters,” his 1993 classical song cycle, Costello’s latest release, “All This Useless Beauty,” was supposed to be another quirky exercise in keeping boredom and frustration at bay (Elvis to record-buying masses: “It isn’t easy being brilliant!”; Record-buying masses to Elvis: “Where’s the new Hootie?”).
“Beauty” was going to consist entirely of Costello’s versions of songs he wrote for or with other artists, but the project shifted gears somewhere along the way. As it stands, “Beauty” is a jumbly, unkempt bird’s nest of a record, half odds and ends, half new material. He and the Attractions skitter from plush “Imperial Bedroom”-style sophisto-pop to rangy “Blood and Chocolate”-style rock ‘n’ roll to surging “Kojak Variety”-style r&b. Costello’s collaborators on “The Juliet Letters,” The Brodsky Quartet, even make a cameo appearance here, playing 1940s Hollywood tearjerker strings on the last track, “I Want to Vanish.”
But the handful of holdovers from the original concept make for a tantalizing peek into Costello’s rock-crit fantasies, which touch on God-playing impulses and a fandom both heartfelt and scary. The songs Costello has written for personal favorites as diverse as Johnny Cash, Aimee Mann, Paul McCartney and Sam Moore of Sam and Dave all but scream out, “Nobody understands these people like I do!”
Take Costello’s Paul McCartney collaborations. On “Pads, Paws and Claws” and “Veronica” from Costello’s “Spike” (1989) and “That Day is Done” and “My Brave Face” from McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt” (also 1989), Costello assumed the John Lennon role and prodded McCartney into the most adventurous and mature work of his solo career. Another McCartney-Costello song, “Shallow Grave,” shows up on “Beauty,” its skiffle beat and screeching guitar reminiscent of “Pads, Paws and Claws.” And, like those other songs, its subject matter seems a bit, well, out there for sunny ol’ Macca.
“Shallow Grave” is the defiant demand of a man who’s been written off, but won’t go quietly. “Dig me down deep where the dead men sleep/ I won’t lie in this poor shallow grave,” goes the chorus, and it works as a commentary on both Costello’s lack of mainstream popularity and (solo) McCartney’s lack of critical acceptance. Like “That Day is Done,” which put the Beatles to rest, “Shallow Grave” offered McCartney a self-awareness he’s rarely exhibited in his own solo work — but he never recorded the song. It’s as if Costello’s McCartney songs were written not for the actual Paul McCartney but for an idea of Paul McCartney. Trippy? Perhaps. But Costello’s generous perspective made McCartney something he hasn’t been for decades — interesting.
Then there’s Costello protege and former Til Tuesday leader Aimee Mann, with whom he wrote “The Other End of the Telescope,” recorded by Til Tuesday on their final album and reworked by Costello on “Beauty.” Mann has become an astonishingly wry and agile songwriter; at times on her solo albums “Whatever” and “I’m with Stupid,” it’s as if pupil is channeling teacher, so well has she absorbed Costello’s sensibilities.
And consider “Complicated Shadows,” the most bracing rocker on “Beauty” (it starts out as a studio take and then switches halfway through to a pounding live one), which was written for, but never included on, Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” album. That Costello could imagine Cash assaying the song’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” chords and urban-Apocalypse street gang scenario is both somewhat ridiculous and a stroke of genius.
Dripping contempt and Old Testament wrath (“Though the fury’s hot and hard/ I still see that cold graveyard/There’s a solitary stone that’s got your name on”), “Complicated Shadows” demands to be sung by the voice of God. Who better to deliver a cautionary tale to young punks than rumbling-voiced Cash, the original gangsta, who recorded those immortal words, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”? Apparently, though, Johnny didn’t see it Elvis’s way. On “Complicated Shadows,” Costello takes on the role of the sneering, vengeful Omniscient Being with gusto, but, God knows, he’s no Johnny Cash.
Clearly, Costello’s vision of his idols, his ideas of what his idols represent (or ought to), is often more complicated than their own view of themselves. But Costello’s attempts to make his private theses come true are also sort of, well, academic. In a perfect world, Frank Sinatra, ABBA and Whitney Houston (all of whom Costello has professed a desire to write for at one time or another) would be knocking down Elvis’s door for material, putting themselves in his hands, letting him be their guide. In reality, he was unable to persuade them that he knew what was best for them.
On “Beauty,” Costello bravely owns up to the larger, dangerous implications of his own hubristic fantasies. I’m not just talking about celebrity stalkers here. If reality is so malleable and everyone is free to indulge in their private take on it, how can a society help but come flying apart? The central question Costello poses on the album is this: Can the fragile agreement that binds a community, the certain shared self-evident truths, stand in the face of shifting political winds and inevitable self-interest?
The title track (written for legendary folkie June Tabor) moves from a snapshot of love turned sour to a wide-angle view of how, time and again, we betray our better natures. From Hollywood to Parliament (or Capitol Hill, take your pick), “Beauty” traces the coarsening of society to its logical conclusion, a world without tradition or faith, where “nonsense prevails, modesty fails, grace and virtue turn into stupidity,” where love and art have been cheapened and truth and liberty redefined at whim: “If something you missed didn’t even exist, it was just an ideal — Is it such a surprise?”
On the plaintive soul ballad “Why Can’t a Man Stand Alone” (written for Sam Moore), Costello rewrites Lennon’s “Imagine” from a considerably less hopeful perspective. “Why can’t a man stand alone?/Must he be burdened by all that he’s taught to consider his own?/ His skin and his station/ His king and his crown/ His flag and his nation/ They just weigh him down,” he cries in a foggy, supple voice filled with bitter resignation. You get the feeling that if you played him “Imagine” at that moment, he’d give a snort and say, Right, what planet was he on?
At least, I think he would. Sometimes, trying to decode Costello, all you can do is throw your hands in the air and say, “I give up!” “Beauty” doesn’t readily gel as one of Costello’s grand cohesive statements (like “This Year’s Model” or “Get Happy!!!” or “Brutal Youth”). But its very lack of cohesion gives it a strangely persistent allure; it keeps calling you back, like the last two clues you can’t figure out in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. And maybe this ability to create mystery and complexity out of what could, for all we know, be very simple is part of Costello’s strongest appeal — for a critic especially. It’s his little gift, from one over-imaginative obsessive to another.
So maybe Costello didn’t really intend “It’s Time” to be the preface to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.” But what with the way it alternates a drum machine and muddied vocals with grinding guitars and pushed-out-front ranting, and the way Costello masochistically picks at the scabs of a dead relationship (“If you do have to leave me/ Who will I have left to hate?”), I say, Yes, he did.
And the heroine of the song “All This Useless Beauty,” who truly does become a useless beauty when her marriage falls apart — it’s got to be Princess Diana. I swear Costello’s been writing about her since “The Element Within Her” on “Punch the Clock” (she’s the girl with the face like “two sapphires and a couple of rows of pearls”). She’s also the “spent princess” with the “uncouth escort looking down her dress” in “Suit of Lights” from “King of America.” Trust me!
And if none of this is what Costello really meant. . . well, damn it, it shouldhave been.
Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.More Joyce Millman.