Elvis Costello has often made references to music that inspired him even as he’s retained his own identity. For example, check the riff from David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel” used in “Two Little Hitlers” on 1979’s Armed Forces. Burt Bacharach co-wrote three tunes on Look Now, and his influence can be detected in many of the other tracks. Classic Motown and Scepter/Wand soul (especially Dionne Warwick’s Bacharach-produced singles) also make their respective ways into the album.
The three Bacharach/Costello tunes draw from musicals that never came to fruition. If the album has a central theme, it relates to the complexity of human encounters, be they romantic or sexual. A filmed musical developed around such matters, and scored with these songs, would be worth seeing.
Look Now stands as Elvis Costello’s 30th album, and his first with his stalwart backing band, the Imposters, since 2008’s Momofuku. It includes a few songs that have kicked around for a while. A collaboration with Carole King is almost 20 years old, the songs Costello wrote with Burt Bacharach stem from musicals the two tried to get produced, and one track comes from a mid-90s soundtrack. But the rest of the material is new. Taken together, it all sounds fresh, and Costello proves fully engaged as a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and arranger.
Look Now leans less towards the rock side of Costello and more towards sophisticated pop. The horn arrangement on “Under Lime,” a sequel to “Jimmy Standing in the Rain” from 2010’s National Ransom, hints at psychedelia before the vocal arrangement pulls the tune over to Broadway. Costello’s guitar strikes on “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” co-written with King, carry a hint of mid-60s Motown all the while the backing vocals underline the girl-group inspiration. Much of Look Now evokes memories of the glory days of AM radio when British Invasion bands played alongside Motown, Southern soul, and the lighter, well-crafted pop of, say, the Fifth Dimension, Dionne Warwick, or even Sinatra.
The effort functions as much a showcase for the versatility of the Imposters as it does Costello’s songs. “Mr. And Mrs. Hush” demonstrates the group’s command of 60s soul. The band easily switches gears to the rock balladry of “I Let the Sun Go Down” and sophisticated soul of “Suspect My Tears.” The album also reveals Costello’s growing skills as an arranger. Every track features a voice, horn, or string section that helps set the tone for the song, and Chris Bellman’s vinyl master lets those elements emerge to make the record even richer.
Indeed, Bellman’s vinyl cut of Look Now allows more room between instruments than the CD version. The vocals and horns on “Under Lime” are both clearly separated and yet better integrated. Pete Thomas’ drums throughout seem optimally positioned behind Costello and sound more natural. Davey Faragher’s bass, a bit too emphatic on CD, gets presented with pleasing balance. Steve Nieve’s piano sounds warm and natural on “Stripping Paper,” and the track’s tiny details, such as Costello’s celesta, seem easier to pick out in the soundstage. When Costello plays a tremolo guitar line behind Nieve, it’s also easier to follow.
Bellman cut the vinyl at a lower volume than the CD and backed off the compression. As I rolled the volume up to bring the music into focus, I appreciated the utterly silent RTI pressing. The gatefold packaging reproduces the session photos and other art from the CD, and the inner sleeves contain lyrics, personnel listings for each track, and additional graphics. The gatefold also serves as a reminder that album cover art makes a more lasting impact on LP due to its larger size.
The analog edition of Look Now does a great service to a strong album by presenting the music on a deep, wide soundstage and giving instruments and voices room to register and resolve. If you bought the CD, you’ll be pleased at how much better the music comes across on vinyl.
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