Monday, May 26, 2008

Elvis Costello's Triumphant "Momofuku"

Listening to Momofuku by Elvis Costello and the Imposters is like getting a postcard from a long-lost friend that you thought you’d never hear from again. Since I haven’t bought that much of his work in recent years, it’s probably not fair for me to say that it’s his best record in years, but it’s so good that it’s hard for me to believe that it isn’t.

The use of “record” here is intentional; Costello organized the album for release on vinyl, complete with a Side 1/Side 2 sequencing. If you close your eyes and listen real hard, you can almost imagine that it’s 1978 or 1979 again, with the organ of Steve Nieve and drums of Pete Thomas providing the basis for a sound that fits right in to the This Year’s Model/Armed Forces mold. When Nieve and Thomas joyfully (one assumes) play out the coda to “American Gangster Time,” you wonder if they were thinking back to those high-octane days of thirty years ago.

But Elvis Costello clearly isn’t the same person he was thirty years ago. Some of the best songs on the album are those which, quite simply, he would not have been capable of writing in 1978 (or even 1988, for that matter). “Flutter and Wow,” obviously something he wrote for his wife Diana, contains the following lyrics, which clearly demonstrate that the “Angry Young Man” persona is a matter of the distant past.

Last rays of sunlight die
Full moon begins to rise
Reflected in your eyes

I can’t believe that this is happening
You make the motor in me
Flutter and Wow

That’s a long way from This Year's Model's "Don’t want to be a goody-goody/I don’t want just anybody/No I don’t want anybody saying/You belong to me, you belong to me"

With words like those, Elvis is veering close to Air Supply territory, but the depth of his singing and the strength of the arrangement make the words matter, and the listener is left thinking that this is a man who has earned his happiness, and one who had to suffer the depths of his emotions in order to revel in the heights. Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, one of several high profile guests on the record, definitely puts his stamp on this song; it sounds as if it could easily fit on a contemporary Los Lobos album.

And then there’s “My Three Sons,” his love song to them:

I love you more than I can say
What I give to one
The other cannot take away
I bless the day you came to be
With everything that is left to me

Here is your pillow
Go to sleep and I will follow
May you never have any more sorrows
But that’s something you can’t count upon
Still I want it for my three sons

But for those who want a dash of that old Elvis anger, there are plenty of songs where that is highlighted, including “No Hiding Place,” “American Gangster Time,” “Stella Hurt,” and “Go Away.” But even those songs feel imbued with the wisdom that only advanced years can bring. And those songs, as well as the others on the album, represent a musical triumph – this is the first time where Costello has seamlessly melded the no-holds barred approach from his youth with the musical prowess he has gained, in partnership with luminaries such as Paul McCartney, Allen Touissant, and Burt Bacharach.

The most prominent of the album’s other guests is Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley’s leader, and her contribution, as part of a “vocal supergroup” which appears on half of the album’s songs, is also significant, lending the songs a modern sound that plants them firmly in the 21st century. And last but not least, Momofuku was named for Momofuku Ando, the Japanese inventor of instant noodles.

To sum up, Momofuku is a great album – perhaps the best of the year, so far.

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