Momofuku: Costello's Best Album Since...
Momofuku is Elvis Costello's best album since...well, you can make your own call. As for me, I'd say Momofuku is his best work since at least 1996's All This Useless Beauty and perhaps even his best since the 1980s -- since the unspectacular but strikingly consistent Spike in 1989, or the spectacular but strikingly inconsistent Blood And Chocolate from three years earlier. I don't know. I'll get back to you.
But I do feel confident enough to proclaim Momofuku the best rock record Costello has made on which he didn't share billing with his golden-age backing band, the Attractions. Granted, Costello's non-Attractions rock efforts (Mighty Like A Rose, When I Was Cruel and the rest) have nearly always featured Attractions drummer Pete Thomas as well as that band's keyboard wizard, Steve Nieve. So I guess what I really mean to say is that Momofuku is Elvis' finest rock record sans Attractions bass player (and Costello nemesis) Bruce Thomas.
Aside from the hardly insignificant detail that those early Elvis Costello & the Attractions albums were part of a punk/new-wave moment that can't be replicated, the real disappointment I feel concerning Costello's post-Attractions work is all about their sound. I'm not sure exactly what Bruce Thomas' bass work -- slippery, at once rhythmic and melodic, always unpredictable -- brought to the party. Did his playing make his mates play differently in response? Or is it that Costello's latter-day backing band, the Imposters (basically the Attractions with bassist Davey Faragher in Bruce Thomas' place) have simply wanted to avoid, their name to the contrary, the old Attractions sound?
Whatever the explanation, those Attractions records sound like Attractions records; they sound instantly as if no other band could possibly be playing. This is particularly the case with the Attractions' urgent, busy rhythm section, which more than anything else helped to transform Costello's not inconsiderable vocal limitations into his distinctively Costello-ish vocal strengths. Costello's Imposters records, meanwhile, typically find both Nieve and Pete Thomas, two of the most singular players to ever grace a rock 'n' roll record, sounding like nothing more than a really good session group.
This creates another problem. Costello's unmistakable tone and phrasing now must carry all the weight of making his latter-day recordings sound like Elvis Costello records -- and Costello's voice these days, turned deeper and raspier with age, and whispery thin on its high end, is a ragged one indeed. This happens to a lot of singers as they get older. It happened to two of Costello's heroes, George Jones and Tony Bennett. But unlike those masters, Costello has yet to adapt his phrasing and melodies to make best use of his new instrument.
On Momofuku, Costello sometimes sounds like he couldn't sing quietly if he needed to -- and he needs to. On "Flutter And Wow" and "My Three Sons", songs as sweet and tender as any he's ever written, he can't make his voice sound either sweet or tender in the choruses; it's as if he requires the running head start of a shout to hit the notes.
Still, as I say, this is the best Costello album since... His songs remain strong as ever, and Momofuku benefits, too, from the energy of putting down the tracks in a hurry and mostly live. I'm particularly fond of the raging attack on our YouTube culture, "No Hiding Place", that opens the disc, and of "Harry Worth", which sounds, both musically and emotionally, like Sergio Mendes swallowing castor oil. Wisely, when Costello strains for the highest notes of the chorus, his paper-thin voice is masked by a small group of even higher voices. Then his voice fades from the mix altogether, though his bittersweet words are still ringing in our ears.