Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Fast Food

Elvis Costello - Momofuku (Lost Highway, 2008)

At first glance, ‘Momofuku’ looks like one of those back-to-basics rock records everyone keeps hectoring Elvis Costello to make. Apparently named after Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant noodles, it is obviously in thrall to the swiftness, unpredictability and excitement of rock and roll’s first gasp – something the contemporary music industry is at last beginning to recapture. Costello is clearly game enough to join in, releasing this album with little or no fanfare or promotion, initially on vinyl and digital download, thus catering to both the technologically open-minded and the luddites among his audience.

Recorded in just a week with Jason Lader at Sun City Studios, it has a stripped back, occasionally raw sound; its drum foundations a solid but muffled thud, its guitars choppy and sometimes brutal. Even Costello’s voice, an instrument that has matured and developed into something powerful, versatile and effective over the years, occasionally assumes the rough, excoriating quality of sandpaper. Overall, there’s a sense of most of these tracks being ‘one take wonders’ with all the little imperfections left not just in place, but as a characteristic feature of the approach and the mood.

The album is most immediate in its first half, and for a while it looks like being Costello’s most immediate and accessible set in some time. Much of this quality comes from a newfound emphasis on backing vocals. ‘No Hiding Place’ might begin with defiantly basic pounding, but it unfolds into something more complex and intricate. Its melody is both elusive and exciting, twisting and turning in unexpected directions, underpinned by luscious harmonies and some delightful slide guitar playing. ‘American Gangster Time’ is almost extravagantly dirty, reviving that familiar Steve Nieve organ sound and some very muddy distorted guitars. ‘Turpentine’ is simply gorgeous, bolstered by some delightfully subtle backing vocals from Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, deep, primal drumming and a rich, full bodied guitar sound.

These tracks also come armed with a number of almost over-familiar Costello couplets: ‘Baby that’s rich/You’re nothin’ but a snitch’, ‘That’s all that it will ever be/Just an accident of chemistry’ or ‘I’d rather go blind for speaking my mind’ stand out as good examples. This, coupled with their musical immediacy, will no doubt endear them to admirers of Costello’s earlier work, but to focus on this is to miss some of the less transparent qualities concealed behind the riveting rancour.

Delve beneath the surface and the sophistication that has characterised a number of his recent works still emerges as the driving factor. ‘Momofuku’, mercifully in this writer’s view, is not merely an attempt to rewrite ‘This Year’s Model’. There are delicate, fluttering, jazzy concoctions (‘Mr. Feathers’), as well as hints at the more soulful turn his writing took with ‘The Delivery Man’ and the collaboration with Allen Toussaint (‘Flutter and Wow’). ‘Harry Worth’ is superb, its minimal arrangement masking a remarkably detailed and sophisticated piece of writing, built from a disarmingly delicate Latin rhythm. It again benefits from uncharacteristic and unexpected vocal parts and also features some of the album’s most memorable and evocative lyrics (‘it’s not very far from tears to mirth….she’ll never know just what Harry was worth’).

On the harsher tracks in the album’s second half, ‘Stella Hurt’ and ‘Go Away’, there’s a slight sense that Costello might have been absorbing the work of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. The former evaporates into a haze of Nels Cline-esque guitar strafing before ending abruptly, whilst the latter has some of the bold classicism Wilco captured on ‘Being There’. Costello frequently alludes to modern artists but I’m not aware of any mutual backslapping between him and Tweedy. This might therefore be a completely inaccurate comparison, but it’s audible even if unconscious.

However, the predominant pace here is actually slow, sometimes almost lethargic, particularly towards the album’s conclusion. Given time to work its magic, this context actually suits Costello’s voice well, as he extends and protracts his phrasing. Once an angry young man trying to squeeze in as many words as possible, he now sounds more reflective, but no less righteous. Those who consider ‘This Year’s Model’ to be Costello’s untouchable masterpiece may be surprised and even disconcerted to hear him singing a song such as ‘My Three Sons’ (‘see what I’ve become/the humbled father of my three sons’), a dissection of parenthood that stays on just the right side of the fine line between touching and sentimental.

Much derided for taking numerous left-turns often unfairly dismissed as genre pastiches, what Costello has actually achieved in the latter part of his career is to find more variety and texture in his language and his voice through experimentation in new contexts. Here, he is at turns angry and bitter but also sometimes charming and mysterious (I still need to sink my teeth into the verbose and unusual ‘Pardon Me Madam, My Name is Eve’). ‘Momofuku’ lacks the tricksy production flourishes of ‘When I Was Cruel’ and isn’t quite as consistently engaging as ‘The Delivery Man’. But as a quick snapshot of Costello’s artistry in action, it provides further evidence of his unwillingness to stand still, and suggests he is still building an increasingly effective synthesis of his wide and diverse influences.

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