It usually works this way for me with new Elvis Costello albums: I play it once and then put it away for a spell. Usually within 24 hours I’ll come back to it. By then I’ve at minimum internalized the vibe of the recording and the direction of the music and can simply come back to listen in a more focused manner to the songs. And then by the third spin I listen for audiophile kinds of things…
True to form, the good news is indeed I am already liking the songs on Look Now, Elvis Costello’s first album in 10 years with his backing band The Imposters. I tried hard to ignore the pre-release hype about this album and the Internet buzz (where some were calling it something of a new Imperial Bedroom, Elvis’ acclaimed 1982 release produced by legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick).
I am glad I did. Look Now, is its own thing, in some ways a summation of the many trajectories Elvis has pursued over the years, with soulful backing vocals (echoes of Punch The Clock), majestic Oddessey and Oracle (Zombies)-flavored constructs (I think I heard a Mellotron in there!) and like Painted From Memory, elegant superstar songwriter collaborations with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Carole King.
Sure there are some French Horns and Orchestral moments here and there but there are also hip-hop-y like drum bits here and there (picking up where Elvis left off with his 2013 collaboration with The Roots called Wise Up Ghost)
If anything on Look Now, I’m hearing more connection to 90s-era Costello recordings such as the much under-appreciated Mighty Like A Rose (from 1991), All This Useless Beauty (1996), Painted From Memory (1998) and perhaps even a bit of North (his lush, somber-but-ultimately-uplifting 2003 song cycle).
By my second listen to Look Now, the songs were jumping out at me! The opening power trio of tunes set the tone for the album. The strummy mid tempo rocker “Under Lime” is followed by the almost blue title track, “Don’t Look Now,” spinging back to the jaunty pop of “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter” before reeling things in for the lovely “Stripping Paper.
I’m really happy Elvis finally recorded and included “Unwanted Number” for one of his formal albums, a song which first appeared in the fabulous 1996 film Grace of My Heart, the soundtrack connection to Look Now which is not lost on this lifetime Costello fan and reviewer. Some of you may remember this wonderful mashup of a movie telling an imaginary tale that loosely echoes the career of Carole King and her merry music making Brill Building mates (there are characters approximating Ellie Greenwich, Lesley Gore, Phil Spector and many others from the era). And then, of course just for good measure, there is fun love interest twist with a post-psychedelic Brian Wilson-esque character thrown in the mix!
For that film, in addition to “Unwanted Number,” Costello co-wrote the instant-classic “God Give Me Strength” with legendary composer Burt Bacharach. Then add to that the fact that Carole King’s daughter Louise Goffin even contributed to that soundtrack along with her ex-husband and former songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, the ties to Look Now grow deeper still. Costello co-wrote “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” with King and Bacharach performs on the tracks he collaborated with Costello on (“Photographs Can Lie,” “Don’t Look Now” and “He’s Given Me Things”).
An important note for those of you who are still lamenting the fact that Elvis is not really making traditional “rock” album in the vein of This Years Model or Armed Forces anymore: don’t hold your breath as Look Now does not alter that pattern.
And I do not think that is a bad thing. Its a good thing, ultimately.
I respect Elvis for not wanting to retrace his steps. No, at moments like this where some might be miffed that Elvis is no longer the angry young punk rocker, I recall a moment from one of his shows where he was playing solo guitar and vocal when some idiot in the balcony shouted out “play some rock ‘n roll!” at an especially quiet and poignant moment. Elvis stopped the song for a split second, looked up to the balcony and spat out with much deserved bile: ‘this is rock ‘n roll mother f____er!’ The crowd burst into applause at which point Elvis slammed back into finishing the song, not really even missing a beat, knocking the performance out of the ballpark. That, in fact was a very rock ‘n roll moment!
How does Look Now actually sound, you ask? Actually for the most part it sounds really great on 180-gram vinyl with surprising consistency given that the album was made at several studios. It thus stands to reason in these 21st century times that this album was made digitally but that doesn’t necessarily mean its bad. Indeed, this overall flavor of album has a warm vintage pop tone to it; most of the time the music is full bodied and not gimmicky or particularly trendy. Elvis’ voice is sounding better than ever in many ways (listen to his vocal control on “Let The Sun Go Down”)
The strings on Look Now are lush with full-on Mantovani-meets-John-Lennon moments that are borderline-schmaltzy but in a the best possible way (“You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way”). Look Now has a rich production aesthetic, no doubt brought to life by co-producer, multiple Grammy winning international producer Sebastian Krys.
A note to vinyl buyers: there is a 12-song single disc version of Look Now as well as a double disc versions with four bonus tracks. I opted for the Deluxe edition which spreads out the tracks over four sides for better fidelity. I have heard at least one complaint from a Facebook friend who was not happy with the sound on his 12-song vinyl version. As I do not have that edition, I can’t comment on it. But in response to his comments I did some due diligence and cherry picked tracks from many of Elvis’ vinyl albums from the past 15-20 years just for some contrast and Look Now holds its own. So, yes, Look Now is not about the raw power of This Years Model or Blood & Chocolate nor the amphetamine Motown rush of Get Happy. And this music is not about the back porch acoustic guitar sparkle like on King of America. But compared to the boxy National Ransom, and some others, Look Now sounds like one of the most full bodied productions Elvis has created in many years.
Happily, Look Now also sounds pretty great on Tidal where it is available in “master quality” MQA format. This is one of those instances where they seem to have gotten everything right for the streaming version as this sounds like the vinyl (which was probably made from the same 96 kHz, 24-bit master, as is a common practice these days). Tidal is streaming the deluxe edition of Look Now which includes the four bonus songs apparently considered for a separate EP (but included, wisely, as simply the final side of the two-LP set).
Look Now may not be This Year’s Model 2018 but it could well be This Year’s Model T, the latter name is in fact a self depreciating mock title portrayed via (perhaps) alternate album art in the LP’s album inner cover gatefold collage (see inset). I don’t know those of you holding out for This Year’s Model III, but I’m along for the long haul ride with Elvis so I’m on board with what he is doing here and now. And per the art in the gatefold cover which says “Life Right Now” in bold scrawled text, I think that is what Look Now is about and it sounds just right for Elvis Costello in 2018.
This Year’s Model T is sounding pretty grand to me.