Hey Ryan Adams fans! Your guy Ryan is an inconsistent motherfucker, isn’t he? I mean, this guy can release Gold and Cold Roses and still drop the fetid clunker Easy Tiger on the world; what the fuck, right? Well, you fans of Mr. Adams should have a beer with fans of Elvis Costello. Like Adams (and perhaps as an inspiration to him), Costello has a tendency to record his every musical flight of fancy, sometimes resulting in absolute horrors like My Flame Burns Blue, which was Elvis Costello trying to sing with an orchestra. Not really his strong suit.
Look: no musical artist should ever be ridiculed for trying to expand their horizons. I’m serious here. However, you shouldn’t expect that your fans will want to hear every little experiment you conduct.
So fans of Elvis Costello have learned to look for Costello’s rock records (he’s made some of the best of all time, from Armed Forces to When I Was Cruel) and eschew his works that might be filed in the jazz section of the record store. At least the smart fans have learned this lesson.
Despite Costello’s recent inconsistency (North, My Flame Burns Blue, and The River in Reverse), I have never doubted that this guy still had some good work in him. After all, When I Was Cruel came out in 2002 and 2004’s Delivery Man was decent enough. Costello’s at his best when he wants to play loud and fast, not thinking too much about sounding like one particular thing or another. When I Was Cruel is an excellent album, made largely because Elvis wanted to plug in and play loud again. Momofuku is his best album since When I Was Cruel, largely for the same reason.
The album opens with “No Hiding Place,” assuring the listener that Elvis Costello is doing what he does best – the musical sneer, something almost no other singer has owned as well as Mr. Costello. Over a pounding drum beat, Elvis snarls, “In the not-too-distant future/ when everything is free/ there won’t be any huge secrets/ let alone any novelty.” And as the song continues, you will think to yourself, “Elvis Costello has remembered how to make a rock album.” Yes, yes he has.
“American Gangster Time” follows, and it’s Elvis Costello’s best song since “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)”. Elvis Costello’s best political songs are great because they can just as easily be angry break-up anthems and, although “American Gangster Time” is more overt (“It’s a drag/ saluting that starry rag/ I’d rather go blind/ for speaking my mind”), it still basically fits that mold. He’s angry and bored with you, America, and he’s going to go find a younger, sexier, more intelligent democracy to pal around with.
Momofuku is not a total redemption; there are still indications of Costello’s lame period, the most glaring example of which is “My Three Sons,” a song about – you guessed it – his kids. I will grant you that Elvis Costello pulls it off a lot better than most people (the melody for the song isn’t bad, it really isn’t) but for fuck’s sake, it’s a song about his kids! I might as well make this public service announcement now, and not, I’m afraid, for the last time: ATTENTION ROCK STARS – DO NOT, EVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, WRITE SONGS ABOUT HOW GREAT YOUR KIDS ARE. THERE IS NOTHING THAT ROCKS LESS – NOT EVEN JAMES TAYLOR – THAN SONGS ABOUT HOW PROUD YOU ARE TO HAVE CARRIED OUT A BIOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE THAT EVERY OTHER SPECIES MANAGES WITH MUCH LESS FANFARE.
A lot of people find my favorite Elvis Costello stuff to be a bit obnoxious, and well they should. That’s what I like about the guy. His rock albums are full of that sneering, swaggering cockiness that comes not from being the toughest guy in the room (far from it) but from having the quickest tongue. The great stuff on Momofuku, then, is just like all of Elvis Costello’s good stuff: it’s cocky, obnoxious, and clever as fuck. I had quite low expectations for this album and Mr. Costello has happily blown those expectations out of the water. Momofuku should be for Elvis Costello what Accelerate should be for R.E.M. – both albums should signal to both artists that their best work is done quick and loud. Now, my biggest Elvis Costello disappointment this year is that he’s opening (opening!) for The Police, the shammiest shysters in all of music. So I’ll have to catch you next time you’re in town, Mr. Costello, and, until then, I’ll just crank up “American Gangster Time” again and rest assured that you’re not done playing up to your potential just yet.