May 06

We don’t talk much about music here at Alert Nerd, but I’ve always believed in the grand tradition of gawky guys with Buddy Holly glasses spitting articulate spite into a microphone–basically, geek rock.

There’s your Weezer, your They Might Be Giants, your Ben Folds and Fountains of Wayne…

…and then there’s Elvis Costello, the godfather of geek rock. (I won’t say “grandfather,” because the dude’s got two babies at home–way to go, old man!)

Elvis has a new record out, entitled Momofuku, and it’s pretty fucking good.

“In the not very distant future
When everything will be free
There won’t be any cute secrets
Let alone any novelty

“You can say anything you want to
In your fetching cloak of anonymity
Are you feeling out of breath now
In your desperate pursuit of infamy”

There’s your opening lines, and it sets a strong tone for the album–we’re getting a “state of the world” update from Costello, and as usual, he’s pretty pissed off. The first track, “No Hiding Place,” seems to be your standard-issue rant against internet culture, media omnipresence, and maybe even the paparazzi. He’s probably noticed his mug showing up alongside his younger wife and their two babies in the gossip rags, and he’s probably not too happy.

Of course, it’s never that simple for Costello–it’s not so much the state of the world that’s askew as it is just the state of America. The record’s second track, “American Gangster Time,” is as scathing an indictment of our current administration and their policies as I’ve heard in the past year, during which artists as varied as Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. have also checked in with their “Fuck you, Bush” albums.

The title alone says it all–“American Gangster Time.” He calls it “committing the perfect crime,” and that’s sure how it feels most days. Set to a vintage Costello sound–pounding drums, crunchy guitar, and wailing organ from Steve Nieve, it hits simultaneously between the ears and between the legs.

The hands on the helpless are raised
Your dead little secrets are praised
The people stand dumbstruck and dazed
By the inches that you have erased

Later on, Momofuku finds Costello at his most nakedly personal; “Harry Worth” is as good a commentary on the highs and lows of marriage as I’ve ever heard, and “My Three Sons” is a simple, straightforward ballad to his kids, both his older son and his infant twin boys. On “Turpentine,” he seems to address his own experiences with alcoholism, although there’s a temptation to read too much into songs sometimes, once you get started down the path toward relating every line to some personal experience on the part of the writer. Costello’s way too smart to make that mistake, so most times, even when you think he’s speaking of his own experience, he throws in lyrical twists to deflect the attention and push it back in your face. Here’s a choice couplet along those lines, from “Turpentine”:

Looking back on all that stolen time (stolen time)
Back when I was drinking (turpentine)
Don’t blame me I only took you in
It takes time to do the poisoning

It seems pretty straight-up, “stolen time,” “when I was drinking.” But then, what’s all this “I only took you in” business? Is he speaking to his alcoholism? Is his alcoholism speaking to him?

I could analyze Elvis Costello lyrics all day. I love this guy.

This is maybe the best record he’s put out in over a decade. Definitely his best band record since Brutal Youth, and I think it aces out Painted from Memory (his collaboration with Burt Bacharach) in my personal rankings.

It just seems like he’s been…TRYING SO HARD for years now. As my buddy Jeff put it in an e-mail, “It’s a lot less, ‘Here, drive a Lexus’ than When I Was Cruel and North were (though I still don’t hate When I Was Cruel), and a lot tighter than Delivery Man.” Part of it has to be the record’s production history, which is about as lean and mean as it gets:

For those who like to know these things, we recorded exclusively to tape, completing and mixing each song before moving on to the next. The entire record took a week to record and mix.

This is a warm, effortless album. You can feel the momentum of its creation in the tracks, and that’s helped by the slightly ragged feel of the production, in which “off-mic” studio chatter often remains on the final product.

There’s also the presence of some new supporting players, most notably Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice of Rilo Kiley fame on instrumentation and backing vocals. For years and years, Costello predominantly recorded his own backup tracks, partly because the members of his band the Attractions couldn’t sing to save their lives. More recently, bassist Davey Faragher has stepped in to provide vocal support, both live and in the studio.

Still, off the top of my head, I can’t remember any songs where Costello had this level of outside backing vocalists on a consistent basis. The result is revealing; when Costello records his own backing vocals, it’s an aural assault by one brain confronting you with the lyrics through song. Adding in separate players provides a subtle shift; suddenly the backing vocals don’t just support the melody and lyrics. Instead, they add their own bits of meaning and response. It almost makes the songs mean MORE than they would if it were just the usual EC vocal attack.

It’s hard not to see Momofuku as a slightly opportunistic release; Costello and his band are touring all summer in support of the Police, and the album puts new product on the shelves for EC to shill to a huge audience of graying former punks at corporate-sponsored venues across the country.

But when a cash grab sounds this good, it’s impossible to complain. Momofuku finds Elvis Costello in top form, doing what he does best–recording smart, catchy, biting, and effortless pop songs, backed by a fierce combo of musicians. It doesn’t get any better than that.


  1. Jeff

    No, you know what was a cash-grab album? Cruel Smile.

  2. Matt

    Good point. Although I do prefer its version of “When I Was Cruel” to the album cut.

  3. Jeff

    Agreed. The album version is really a totally different animal with its own charm, but the demo is where it’s at.

  4. Matt

    It’s interesting–now that we’re hearing Momofuku, I almost view the WIWC demo as some kind of early step in the more straight-ahead direction, and then EC turning away to pursue the more obtuse road instead.

    Along those lines, I feel like “Dust” is an early, weaker draft of “Skin and Bone.”

  5. Aaron

    Dust wasn’t a weak anything. It was a fantastic song. That said, my favorite Costello songs are when he’s at his angriest, like the fury of Tokyo Storm Warning or the dripping malevolence of Tramp the Dirt Down. Let Him Dangle is also a great track, and King of America was probably his best album to date, with Little Palaces so full of emotions quivering in his voice. That said, I haven’t heard Momofuku yet and can’t wait to.

  6. Matt

    Aaron, I did give “Dust” a listen this morning (the live cut from Cruel Smile, which came up randomly on my iPod, how’s that for kismet) and you’re right–it’s not that weak a song. I guess what diluted it for me was the fact that I own about seventeen different versions of it, including two on the album itself. I just don’t know if it’s worth THAT much attention…

  7. Jeff

    I’ll stick up for multiple versions of Dust, just because there’s not one I really dislike.

    If we’re talking angry Elvis, Aaron mentions Little Palaces, one of my favorites, but some really good, really caustic stuff has ended up relegated to the Rhino bonus disc material. Poisoned Letter, for instance.

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