Elvis Costello fans received a scare earlier this year when the 64-year-old icon revealed he was battling cancer and had what he described in a statement as "a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy." The music world, still recovering from losing such greats as Tom Petty, Prince, Glenn Frey, and more, braced for the worst. For now, however, the prognosis is good. Costello returns this week with the lovely and meticulously orchestrated Look Now, his first album with the Imposters since 2008's rock-focused Momofuku. The Imposters, essentially the Attractions with a different bassist, remain one of Costello's best-known and most-acclaimed backing bands. Hence, in celebration of the singer's return to recording with old friends, we explore five of our favorite Costello cuts with the Imposters.
"The Delivery Man"
The centerpiece of the 2004 album of the same name, "The Delivery Man" is the sort of story that could have been an episode of "Desperate Housewives." Suburban malaise makes for a fertile pop topic, and Costello handles it with the best of ‘em, painting a portrait of two women dreaming of a rendezvous with Abel, the delivery man at the heart of the narrative. Musically, Costello and the Imposters have fun with a jazzy, lounge-like arrangement – the kind best handled by a cover band at an airport Hilton. But Costello's lyrics put it all over the top. "She talks like the beauty that she never was," he sings, in the first verse, of a woman nostalgic for days she never lived.
"Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter"
A new song, but one with a long history – and a cut Costello fans long wished the artist would record. Co-written with Carole King, the work began appearing in Costello's live sets back in the late 90s, and again more recently in the lead-up to Look Now. The track carries a sweetly lush arrangement reminiscent of Costello's work with Burt Bacharach. Led by a swinging beat from Pete Thomas, the musical diversity – handclaps and R&B-leaning backing harmonies build to a Latin-inflected horn section – reflects the multiple generations present in the lyrics. "Look at them now," Costello sings during the song's devasting center. "My, how things have changed."
"Soul for Hire"
Found on Costello's first album with the Imposters, 2002's When I Was Cruel, "Soul for Hire" counts as a definite oddity – an atmospheric, noir-inspired downtempo track full of unexpected rhythmic scrapes and brushes. While Costello's clear articulation gives every song he touches smooth corners, the sonic environment here wouldn't be out of a place on a Tom Waits record. Vocally, Costello varies the tempos, and occasionally rushes over the words to add to the overall creepy vibe. "I see every evil men do and desire," Costello sings, as the verses shift from dealing with shame ("hang my head and shut my eyes") to living with guilt ("I get distracted from my job"). Something sinister lies within the words, and the mystery keeps us coming back.
"No Hiding Place"
Any Costello fan will tell you bitter, sarcastic Costello always turns heads. Such truth dates all the way back to early songs such as "Less Than Zero" and "Radio Radio." On "No Hiding Place," the opening cut on 2008's Momofuku, Costello looks at our oncoming all-digital future and doesn't like what he sees. The opening verses seem to predict our current age, when arguments can be shouted from behind social-media avatars. He sings, through gritted teeth, "You can say anything you want to/In your fetching cloak of anonymity/Are you feeling out of breath now?/In your desperate pursuit of infamy." The song, with slight Western accents, cedes to a scornful rock n' roll chorus, where L.A. singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis adds taunting backing harmonies.
"Monkey to Man"
"Man uses words to dress up his vile instincts," Costello sings near the end of "Monkey to Man," a 2004 track from The Delivery Man that sets its sights on toxic masculinity. And Costello has a blast tearing someone apart, comparing a man's tall tales to fairytales while decrying his "crying statutes and his flying bomb." The music, too, feels joyfully acrimonious, with rolling pianos, a retro Hammond organ, and sashaying guitar riffs. But it isn't just a teardown. Costello calls upon listeners to "speak up" and call out trouble when they see it. The song starts a little bluesy and, as it progresses, it veers into punk rock territory, proving it can feel good to snarl.
Photo credit: James O'Mara