The book is simultaneously revealing and guarded, in all the ways a Costello fan would expect it to be. Gloriously written yet infuriatingly opaque. If fans know anything about Elvis it is that he would be anything but obvious. What he does with great aplomb is to decipher certain lyrics in such a way that I often wished for a compendium of his lyrics with side-notes and references. It’s something I would buy, I suspect I’m not alone.
Since the biog has no linear tendencies the zig-zagging across the decades is occasionally perverse but eventually makes sense. His form is to write of instances that remind him of why he ended up in that position or artists that influenced this or that reference or song. There is a lot about music, in some ways it’s all about music and his knowledge and depths of references are bewildering in their expanse.
Elvis is the single artist by whom I own the most work. In reading UM&DW I realised that I had barely scratched the surface of his output. There were countless songs written for, and recorded by, others of which I knew nothing. Added to this there are dalliances in genres of music that I feared I would dislike but now yearn to hear.
Whilst reading the infinitely more linear, Detroit ’67, I had the urge to put together a Spotify playlist featuring every song in the order in which it was mentioned in the book. Of course, I didn’t do it, partly because life’s too short and partly as I was half-way through the book before I had the idea. With UM&DW the quest would’ve been equally unachievable by virtue of the incredible quantity of music referenced, it is a dizzying tribute to Elvis’ love of music and a remarkable testament to his father’s influence that it would take a lifetime to work your way through the sources.
Like a great gig will inspire you to visit that act’s latest album or catalogue, so the book prompted a trawl of Attractions/Imposters and many others, not that I ever need much encouragement to listen to Elvis. Look Now mimics the book in collecting some discarded songs and placing them in a current setting, rushing through themes and styles that have been prominent throughout his years of making music. It can be argued that it’s most similar to the Bacharach collaboration ‘Painted From Memory’ and has fewer ‘rock’ moments than some might hope for, that itch being sated by its predecessors ‘Momofuku’ and ‘Wise Up Ghost’. Melodically though it is vintage Costello. Where other albums have tended towards a specific style it is more wayward and erratic as if to echo every aspect of his output rather than confine it to specific side-projects or concept albums. I can’t be alone in hearing a trace of the oft-maligned ‘Goodbye Cruel World’, can I?
Costello confounds my theory that heritage acts should stop releasing new material. 31 albums in, he doesn’t conform to expectations or even his own predictions. If we’re on this trip with him then we undoubtedly buy into the enigma. With each step, we hope that we’re not experiencing the epitaph, Bowie and Cohen having put that fear into our souls.
Few people will find this ‘organically’ or use it as their entry point to Elvis Costello, perhaps he’s preaching to the choir. If so he does an incredibly accomplished job of it, as if we’d have expected any less.