Friday, October 10, 2008

Elvis Costello 19: All This Useless Beauty

While the Rykodisc reissue program rolled on, Elvis stayed busy touring with the Attractions, promoting Kojak Variety in his own way and preparing for a return to the studio with those Attractions by playing a five-show residency in Manhattan. Many of the songs he tried out had been written with other people’s voices in mind, and some had already been recorded by those people. (Fans were understandably wondering if perhaps this was because the well had run dry; he pointed out that after covering other people’s songs on Kojak, now it was his turn to cover himself. Or something.)
The album with the Attractions did emerge on schedule, thank goodness. All This Useless Beauty is a relatively low-key set of original ballads. Several complained that it wasn’t “Pump It Up” enough; those people must not have noticed how much his voice had improved. (Lots of piano too, which may have reflected his rediscovery of the Trust album via preparing its reissue the year before.) As it turned out, not all of the songs had been heard before in other renditions, and even those that had—like the opening “The Other End Of The Telescope”, first released by ‘Til Tuesday—had evolved somewhat, making for more definitive versions. “Little Atoms” follows, piling on the imagery and wordplay over a gurgling backing based on “Deutscheland Uber Alles”. The title track—a first for Elvis—and “Poor Fractured Atlas” examine the role of the post-liberation male, while “Complicated Shadows” (written for Johnny Cash) and “Shallow Grave” (written with Paul McCartney) take more of a country-and-western bent. “Starting To Come To Me” and “It’s Time” originated from the Mighty Like A Rose period; the latter seems at first to be a classic nasty Costello kiss-off, but would be revealed to be yet another angry diatribe against Margaret Thatcher.
While the album did occasionally rock, for the most part it accurately reflected the maturity of a band who’d known each other for two decades. After doing a pile of piano-and-vocal shows with Steve Nieve (commemorated on the limited edition Costello & Nieve live EP set released at year’s end) he promptly dragged the album around the world for another tour, at the end of which he threatened to retire and refused to work with the bass player ever again; of the two promises, he’s only thus far kept the latter.
All This Useless Beauty was given a position of honor in the first batch of Rhino releases, bolstered by various demos of unknown vintage, with a few more tracks written for others to sing, including “Almost Ideal Eyes”, a dizzying David Crosby pastiche that came this close to making the album. Other timely bonuses include a rendition of the McCartney collaboration “That Day Is Done” with the Fairfield Four, the Brian Eno experiment “My Dark Life” and “The Bridge I Burned”, added to the contract-ending Extreme Honey: The Very Best Of The Warner Bros. Years compilation, which followed in 1997. With the Warner period over and the Ryko reissues completed, he was at (yet another) crossroads.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions All This Useless Beauty (1996)—
2001 Rhino: same as 1996, plus 17 extra tracks

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