We all remember David Lee Roth’s infamous dig at Elvis Costello – “Rock critics like Elvis Costello because rock critics look like Elvis Costello.” It doesn’t seem like such a dig anymore (Costello has aged gracefully, while Roth looks like a worn catcher’s mitt), but it also missed the point entirely. Rock critics like Elvis Costello because Elvis Costello is what we want out of our musicians – willing to take risks, genre-hopping at the drop of a hat, and still able to carve out his own distinct sound. Every album Costello has made (the pounding soul of Get Happy!!!, the swelling pop of Imperial Bedroom, the roots-rockiness of King of America) can, at their very cores, be identified as his work. That is by no means a bad thing.
Elvis Costello’s new album with The Imposters, Momofuku, sounds exactly like, well, an Elvis Costello album. Cranked out in eight days in January and February 2008, Momufuku is as lean and mean as his late-70s output, while retaining the willingness to branch out that informs his more modern work. A host of guest musicians crop up (including Beachwood Sparks members and “The Wizard” star/musician of some note Jenny Lewis, who heads a vocal “supergroup”), but they are seamlessly integrated into the music, rather than taking over the proceedings. The result is one of Costello’s best albums in years, a stripped-down affair that might not reach the heights of classics like This Year’s Model, but succeeds because it’s not trying to reach them.
“No Hiding Place” starts the proceedings in rocking fashion, a thumping beat backing marvelous harmonies, steel guitar, and Steve Nieve’s signature electric piano. This is followed by the snarling “American Gangster Time,” a thoughtful update to “I’m So Bored With The USA” where the guitars growl along with Costello’s cutting lyrics. The keyword for much of this album is “muscular” – the rock-solid bass and guitars of “Drum & Bone,” the crunchy fuzz of “Stella Hurt” (with a piano line that echoes “Hey Bulldog,” one of the Beatles’ real rave-up rockers), and the four-on-the-floor album closer “Go Away,” Lewis offering fine duet vocals while the organ swirls around everything. Costello remains in fine voice throughout – I swear, Bob Dylan’s voice is raspier than a nail file, Paul McCartney’s high range is half gone, and Costello sounds like the young man that recorded “Welcome To The Working Week.” It’s amazing.
The quieter moments are all fine respites from the pounding rockers. “My Three Sons” gently relates Costello’s trip through fatherhood, mistakes and all, with a quiet guitar ringing through. “Harry Worth” mixes loungey piano with lyrical turns of phrase straight out of Get Happy!!! “Flutter & Wow,” carried by stately piano, is a surprisingly affecting love song from a man who wrote precious few love songs. “Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve,” co-written with Loretta Lynn, twists the Bible’s first couple into a more Costello-like bitter tale of relationship strife. Still, the album’s main attractions (forgive the pun) are the rockers, and rightfully so.
Costello made waves by originally stating that this album would be on vinyl only, then eventually changed his mind and allowed a more traditional release. It’s probably for the best, since an album this strong deserves to be heard by more people than turntable devotees. I have a certain soft spot for Costello’s more carefully considered genre exercises and the craft he puts into albums like The River in Reverse, but it’s refreshing (and, perhaps, a little telling) to see him burn out twelve tracks that make me think of his This Year’s Model / Armed Forces heyday, where he and The Attractions fired off razor-sharp tunes almost at will. It’s nice to see that, in his old age, Elvis Costello’s still capable of keeping that edge.