Momofuku too, Elvis
Elvis Costello has got to be one of the more acute examples of getting what he wanted and thereby losing what he had. One reason he wanted to leave Columbia in the late ’80s was that they didn’t give him the recording budget of what he felt an artist of his stature should have. They treated him like a semi-failed pop star rather than the prestige item that he’d also always been.
So he moved to Warners, and at first seemed to justify his wants — Spike didn’t compare to the two records he ended his Columbia contract with in 1986, but it sounded like he was having a great time spending studio dollars, and his songwriting had plenty of jam left in it — Thatcher, Death Penalty, possibly the strangest and funniest rocksong anyone’s ever written about the concept of God, even the McCartney co-write hit single was kind of twisted. But by his next album 18 months later the fun had gone out of him, establishing two decades of a tendency to pretensions of all extremes, heavy-handed neo-traditionalism (his tradition, whatever that means), interrupted by occasional projects just simple enough to get by — tunes-by-Burt, piano-by-Toussaint, Attractions as stripped-down power pop (Brutal Youth) or noise-via-“blues” (Delivery Man). But none of those pretty decent albums ever transcended their high-concept news hooks, none of them ended up being about anything but a change of pace or a fond look back. None of them suggested that he still cared about more than his image — when he sounded pissed off on The Deliveryman, it may have meant that he’d rediscovered the thunder in his voice, but by the third listen it was clear that it mostly meant that he’d just gotten better at simulating what once came to him instinctually. And of course it didn’t help that his critic-fan base seemed more comfortable with entirely predictable throwbacks like When I Was Cruel.
On the surface, Momofuku looked like it might be another change-of-pace, its gimmick that it was recorded in two weeks, named with seeming randomness after the guy who invented Ramen noodles, or maybe really just a way to suggest “motherfucker,” right Elvis? But if it doesn’t come off actually tossed-off, it does come off as unassuming, which is news for this formerly great artist who’s been undone by his ambitions for a lot longer than he was ever great. Also, more importantly, I don’t think he’s dazzled me with his wit or impressed me with his thought since 1989 the way he does twice here: The unassuming “Harry Worth,” whose refrain goes
“There are not many moments that will capture your breath
It’s not very long that you spend on this earth
She’d never know just what Harry was worth”
Ambitious, sure, but as all-encompassing as he wants to be, for once, actually contemplative rather than wanting to seem deep, with high-thread-count belly-button lint to show for his navel-gazing.
And on the fairly different “Flutter and Wow,” he comes up with his sweetest, sexiest, simplest metaphor in forever: “You make the motor in me/Flutter and wow.”
In other words, for two songs he actually sounds like a thoughtful 53-year-old guy rather than a disembodied Artist bound entirely by the studio, stage (maybe) and his own career.
At least he’s been committed to that — he has maintained my interest even when he can’t bring me much pleasure because he does challenge himself, at least on the surface: string quartet, jazz solo piano, torchsong as artsong, classical whatchamacallits. And while those sojourns have been a lot harder to listen to than the failed country-covers album he could toss off back when he was king, it’s not like sticking to his tried-and-true has worked so well for him — Mighty Like a Rose, All This Useless Beauty and When I Was Cruel were all in his traidition (at least the pensive sit-down studio-bound style of Imperial Bedroom) and were all damn short on thrills and meaningful material.
And while Momofuku is his third solid album since 2004 (and the other two in between were avowed non-rock departures — like Sonic Youth he’s learning to preserve the brand-name by announcing the experiments as such, which of course only works if in between you do something worthwhile) , the fact that he’s turned somewhat reliable again for the first time since the ’80s isn’t as heartening as I’d hoped, because three good albums in three different directions suggests that he just isn’t going to get any better. After all, Brutal Youth was so much more fun than Mighty Like a Rose, Painted from Memory so much more memorable than Useless Beauty that it seemed greedy to wonder why the words hadn’t regained their bite. But now that he seems to have rediscovered the difference between music that’s good and music that’s merely (and barely) interesting, it’s time for the words to make a similar jump, and except on the two songs cited above, he’s clearly not there.
So instead of recommending the new album, how about a CD’s worth of post-Spike tracks? Name it after a quote from its best lyric, Not Many Moments. You think Spike’s no better than any of the albums that came after it, well I’d put all of that album’s first side here (yup, I was still buying LP’s in 1989), and I’ll also note that the best-of Warners put together was a dreary mess. The tracks from All This Useless Beauty, When I Was Cruel and the otherwise dire Juliet Letters are not tokens — I’m surer about them than either of the tracks from the quite listenable Bacharach album. The songs are in rough order of quality, tempered by overall playability. Right, two obscure r&b covers (#2, #6) pretty much trumps the whole period). And if the failure of the songs to rise to the occasion of these hard-to-sweet hooks convinces you it’s a waste, well, I’ve enjoyed this playlist several times now.
- 20% Amnesia (Brutal Youth ’94)
- Strange (Kojak Variety, ’95)
- Bedlam (Deliveryman, ’04)
- Playboy to a Man (Mighty, ’91)
- Pony St. (Brutal)
- Tears, Tears and More Tears (River in Reverse, ’06)
- Kinder Murder (Brutal)
- Harry Worth (Momofuku, ’08)
- Starting to Come to Me (All This Useless Beauty, ’96)
- 13 Steps Lead Down (Brutal)
- Ascension Day (River)
- Flutter and Wow (Momofuku)
- My Science Fiction Twin (Brutal)
- Everybody’s Crying Mercy (Kojak)
- London’s Brilliant Parade (Brutal)
- The Long Division (Painted from Memory ’98)
- Jacksons, Monk & Rowe (Juliet Letters, ’93)
- Georgie and Her Rival (Mighty)
- When I Was Cruel No. 2 (When I Was Cruel ’02)
- In The Darkest Place (Painted)
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