Elvis Costello and the Imposters Momofuku

[Lost Highway; 2008]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: pop, rock, adult-contempo
Others: Randy Newman, Steely Dan, other mature ironists

Today’s retro reconquest ought to inspire plenty of cynicism. With the ’80s recently elevated to canon, many of its surviving heroes are taking the opportunity to reappear, peddling returns-to-form that often seem made up of bland craft and empty self-reference. It may be that we’re listening to the sound of celebrity celebrating itself. More generously, perhaps, we are giving the inventors of today’s most thoroughly pillaged sounds their due, their chance to prove they still know post-punk better than a lot of pretty young jerks. Still, judging recent work by elderly uglies like Bauhaus, New Order, and R.E.M., most would have been better served by induction into a museum than by more space at the record store.

Elvis Costello earned his bit of history with his first band, The Attractions. This Year’s Model, My Aim is True, and Armed Forces are part of the bridge connecting the disparate interests of British post-punk in the early ’80s with the wider traditions of rock ’n’ roll. But Costello, like Frank Zappa before him, had ambitions that predated and went beyond rock. He was already a literate fan of jazz, soul, and classic pop and, after his vital period with The Attractions, spent most of the next two decades working in those modes — in the process inadvertently helping to define “maturation” in the post-punk era.

Momofuku is being described as The Imposters doing The Attractions. Yes, a couple of the tracks “rock” like Costello of yore. But whereas early Costello songs were screw-tight, like soul and pop standards wound up into punk by sheer force of angst, the rock songs here are closer to the spirit of bar music — dumb fun with phoned-in riffs, band-centered (rather than song-centered) arrangements, and little sense of urgency. If “American Gangster Time” is the sound of Elvis Costello evoking his musical youth, then perhaps he doesn’t remember it well.

Unsurprisingly, he sounds far more convincing when twisting up old pop formulae like a genteel Tom Waits. Speaking of whom, “Harry Worth” is an electric bossa of the kind in which Waits has occasionally dabbled — ideal for Costello, leaving him plenty of space to stretch his somewhat timeworn voice. “Flutter and Wow” is Gaucho-era Steely Dan minus the darkness and irony. “Mr. Feathers” is plenty dark, like Randy Newman at his most sinister. Its lyrics, alone on Momofuku, recall the sense of sexual menace characteristic of Costello’s early, angry songs. Musically, it comes very close to ripping “God’s Comic” (from 1989’s Spike), but it’s a welcome highlight anyway.

When Costello puts out records in pop-expansive mode, critics are occasionally stymied by the quantity of material to measure it against — not just his own work, but the whole history of pop that he appropriates and repurposes. It’s a sly bit of obscurantism. It saves him from criticism through a post-punk lens; such criticism often risks seeming ignorant when trying to size up the historical and classicist. Momofuku, perhaps owing to the present comfortable atmosphere for ’80s reunions and comebacks, sets more specific goals and mostly fails them. However, where other reborn acts seem to revel in the sheer formal reconstruction and forget songwriting entirely, Costello gets it backwards and winds up with a listenable record as a result.

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