Like in "Anna Karenina," the characters in "Look Now," Elvis Costello's sumptuous new album with The Imposters, are each unhappy in their own way.
A woman who laments her deteriorated marriage while doing some renovations around the house ("Stripping Paper"); a dilapidated music-hall singer whose return to showbiz may be brief ("Under Lime"); a daughter pondering her dad's infidelity ("Photographs Can Lie"); someone grieving the end of the British empire ("I Let the Sun Go Down") and so on.
What make it easy to be sympathetic with even the most pitiable of those in these very human songs are Costello's elegant melodies and arrangements, which result in a kind of silkier, even more debonair version of "Imperial Bedroom," his 1982 album produced by recently departed Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick.
Costello's guitars are mostly in a supporting role. Horns, woodwinds and strings—as well as some of the liveliest backing vocals on an EC album since Afrodiziak lit up "Punch the Clock"—plus the deft hands of The Imposters and Argentine-born co-producer Sebastian Krys, turn "Look Now" into one of his most sonically gratifying records.
Burt Bacharach composed some of the music and Costello also dusted off "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," another tale of domestic gloom, written years ago with Carole King. But there are several others, including "Why Won't Heaven Help Me" and "Stripping Paper," which show how deeply those 1960s sounds, from pop to soul, influenced Costello and how expertly he applies them in his own superlative songwriting, which "Look Now" has plenty of.
Costello said he recorded the lead vocals as he was recovering from a cancer scare and it made him feel invigorated instead of depressed. The power of his voice here, including that characteristic long-wave vibrato, confirms his mood.
Those in Costello's songs may be mostly miserable, but "Look Now" will make its listeners very happy indeed.