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Magic man

Elvis Costello becomes our generation's Sinatra

by Stephanie Zacharek

["Elvis Elvis Costello's All This Useless Beauty is the sort of record that makes you feel ashamed to be a rock critic -- embarrassed over every dime-store comparison your lot has ever made, every hyperbole blown more full of hot air than a parade balloon, every adjective and superlative ever slung casually over an argument like a coat on a chair. The sound of All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros.) makes you want to reclaim all those wasted words, to reharvest them and toss out the ones you really should have toned down, if only to make people believe you just this once. Costello, the most gifted songwriter to follow in the wake of Dylan, is now something else: a singer unmatched by any other in rock and roll, a singer whose voice is capable of such depth and emotional magnitude that it can still surprise us, even though for many of us, after almost 20 years, it should be familiar enough to preclude surprises. At a point in his career when he could be content to make records that capture even a flash of his early brilliance, Costello instead finds himself on the cusp of a change. His voice, translucent as honey and hard as amber, is becoming as significant as his legend. It's as if, now that he's fought through a portion of his anger and frustration, he'd finally met up with the voice that was waiting for him on the other side. He's finally become our generation's Sinatra.

You could hear Costello hurtling toward this point on last year's Kojak Variety, a carefully selected collection of covers that reached from James Carr's "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man" to Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You." As spectacular as Costello's body of original material is, his covers are always a separate treat, and a revelation. With his own fantastic wordplay removed, his singing slips into clear focus. At the beginning of Bill Anderson's "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face," his subtle vibrato stretches out like a vine creeping across a wall in the night, but by the end of the song it's completely transmuted. Its texture is grainier; gradually, it's become a voice less capable of holding together, a cracked sand castle, and its very tenuousness is the thing that holds you. The grooves of Kojak Variety seemed to reach out far beyond its running time. Once you'd heard Costello's version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Please Stay" or Ray Davies's "Days," it wasn't hard to imagine him breathing life into almost any other song you'd ever loved. What would his "Wichita Lineman" sound like? His "You Only Live Twice" or his "The Nearness of You?"

Costello now digs deeper into his material than ever, and his singing on All This Useless Beauty -- not just supported but held aloft by the Attractions -- is so superb it's hard to look at this as just another Elvis Costello album. It isn't. Even the Attractions sound different, more tuned in to the nuances of Costello's vocals than before. On "Poor Fractured Atlas" and "It's Time," Steve Nieve's simple, elegant piano and organ phrases work like pliant frames for Costello's freehand phrasing, and the bright starburst motifs scattered throughout "Little Atoms" sound like small science experiments of their own. On "Shallow Grave," a grimly buoyant R&B rocker written with Paul McCartney, Pete Thomas's stickwork conjures the clack and clatter of a dancing skeleton; on the bitter ballad "Distorted Angel," he works out a majestic march pattern that stands up like a corridor of soldiers, armed and ready to protect the fragile falsetto passage with which Costello closes the song.

It doesn't hurt that the overall sound of All This Useless Beauty is almost impossibly beautiful. Produced by Costello and Geoff Emerick (the brilliant engineer who worked with George Martin on the Beatles' most ambitious tracks, and the producer behind the stark gorgeousness of Costello's Imperial Bedroom), the album manages to sound pristine and crisp without being hard-edged. Some of the songs almost shimmer with a soft, pearly glow.

It's production made for a vocalist nonpareil, exactly what All This Useless Beauty deserves. Costello has been working toward becoming that vocalist all these years; he's captured better than any singer of his generation the cautious expectation, the heartache hiding behind a mask of aggression, the punctured dreams we're all prey to. If Sinatra's crooning in the '40s, smooth as whipped butter, spoke to the romantic hopes of his listeners, then Costello's choked-up growl, 30 years later, spoke to ours. The young Sinatra lured his fans like a male siren, the irresistible lushness of his voice beckoning them like a specter. Costello shoved all his honesty to the front like a wall of fire, as revenge for his frustration at not being able to understand or attain his own desires: his "My Funny Valentine" mixed tenderness and glittering cruelty in a hopeless jumble.

You could spend hours cataloging their differences. Whereas Sinatra's crooning was the salve of a generation buffeted by wartime, the bitterness marbled through Costello's songs, particularly his political material, sounded as if he were bracing for the very last war ever. But even though Costello played the misanthrope and Sinatra hung his dreams out like a flag, it's not hard to see that the two singers give us mirror images of the same reckless, bottomless romanticism, the same deep-rooted heartache bred not of diminished expectations but of impossibly high ones. Costello's "Town Cryer" could be the narrator of Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours," having risen from the insomniac clouds around his bed and now wandering the night streets in a haze of restless self-examination. As he sings "Town Cryer," Costello belongs on the misty, blue-green street shown on the cover of Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours. At his most romantic, the young Sinatra made his listeners believe he could give them the moon, a promise that, of course, could never be fulfilled. The young Costello laughed bitterly at anyone who'd be stupid enough to think the moon was within reach -- and stretched a hand out to it in the dark.

Now the older Costello, like the older Sinatra of the '50s and early '60s, isn't as interested in defensive artifice. He's testing out his voice, trying it out against different songs, exploring its ability to reflect experience instead of deflecting it. Costello's guarded openness informs almost every track on All This Useless Beauty, but especially the first one, "The Other End of the Telescope" (written with Aimee Mann, though Costello's version is different from the one that appeared on 'Til Tuesday's Everything's Different Now). "I know it don't make a difference to you/But oh, it so made a difference to me/You see me off in the distance I hope/At the other end of the telescope," he sings, pushing the sound from the top of his throat, away and out as if it were threatening to choke the breath out of him. His desperation is bloodied and stumbling, but it's still aggressive -- until he reaches the last lines of the song, which almost seem to come out in gasps. He turns a word as inconsequential as "of" into a token; it slides out of him helplessly, a miniature glissando. In the end, it's still only a small word -- connective tissue, nothing more than a preposition, really -- and yet, for a split second, it seems as if it could stop the world from spinning.

Costello also struggles not just with the world's expectations of men but with all that men expect of themselves, cutting a small window into the shell that hides the frailty of machismo. The muscular, rolling organ lines of the gospel-washed "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?" stand up to the song's central question like an intimidating drill sergeant, calling even more attention to the arresting cracks and striations in Costello's voice. "Why Can't a Man . . . " could be a companion piece to "Stand by Your Man," an unvarnished exploration of why men act like jerks. "Must he be burdened by all that he's taught to consider his own?", Costello asks, not forgetting that some men feel they own their women, too. "Why can't a woman be just what she seems?/Must she be tarnished by men who can only be men in their dreams?" he sings, almost as an "amen" to Tammy Wynette's withering words "After all, he's just a man."

In the stark piano-drizzled ballad "Poor Fractured Atlas," Costello explains that "Man made the water fall over the dam/To temper his tantrum with magic" -- and you wonder whether that mightn't be Costello's own stab at self-recrimination, a shrugging explanation of how he's been able to transmute his own rage into so much magic. The question comes up again in All This Useless Beauty's closer, "I Want To Vanish," the most stunning -- and the most unsettling -- song here. "I want to vanish, this is my fondest wish/To go where I cannot be captured/Laid on a decorated dish/Even in splendor, this curious fate/Is more than I care to surrender, now it's too late," Costello sings against a lacy backdrop of woodwinds and strings (played with luminous clarity by the Brodsky Quartet) and Nieve's powdered traceries of piano. His phrasing threads through the song like a ghostly snake; his voice has the velvety softness of rose petals. "How can I tell you,'' he pleads, "I'm rarer than most?"

Of course, he doesn't have to: All This Useless Beauty speaks for him. But "I Want To Vanish" is unnerving for another reason; it pinpoints its singer's greatest wish as the listener's greatest fear. This is a voice you want to be around you forever, and the idea of its vanishing connotes not just a loss for the future but the erasure of all of its traces. Strangely, though, "I Want To Vanish" also instills a sense of continuity, and of permanence. The song reads like a nighttime contemplation, a yearning for sleep that suggests Costello, after all these years, is still the town cryer, wandering the streets in the wee small hours. But the voice is so different now, an adamant reaffirmation not just of his past glory but of his continued promise. It seems a long time since Costello was a little boy lost in a big man's shirt. How is it, then, that he's only just now growing into it?

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