JORGE FARAH: Elvis Costello spent the decade immediately following All This Useless Beauty on a quest to sound like anybody but, well, Elvis Costello. For all the eclecticism of his previous work, there was always a through line that seemed to indicate a logical progression– as ragged and unkempt as it sounded, the songs on Blood and Chocolate didn’t feel completely unrelated to the songs on Spike; similarly, some of the ideas in Spike were further developed (and sometimes tragically over-developed) on its follow-up Mighty Like a Rose. There was also the feeling that, for every sharp left turn he took in his discography, there was a generally agreed-upon idea of a classic Elvis Costello sound that would anchor him back to normalcy. This is to say that for every country or string quartet album he released, the faceless throng of his fanbase (and likely his management) expected him to pick his guitar back up and go back to hooky New Wave songs about bitterness and inadequacy. I’m sure that to someone with as severe a case of musical wanderlust as EC, this market expectation must’ve felt hugely stifling; as much as the Classic Costello Sound (heretofore CCS) likely represents his natural songwriting inclinations, he may have started to resent it.
This would explain why, when The Attractions broke up for the second time in 1996, Elvis disposed with that anchor entirely and dedicated himself to trying on as many hats– literal and otherwise– as he could afford. Between 1998 and 2008, he released a collaboration with Burt Bacharach, a largely acoustic album of pop songs sung with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter, an album of noir-pop electronic experiments, an album of morose jazz ballads, a ballet score, a brawny country-western album, and a collaboration with soul legend Allen Toussaint. By the time 2008’s Momofuku materialized– and it really did seem to come out of nowhere, recorded seemingly on a whim over the course of 3 days after guesting on a Jenny Lewis record– his fans had largely lost hope that the CCS still even existed. The songs from that decade that most closely approached that description, particularly those from When I Was Cruel, always seemed slightly off. Detached. Like he was faking it.
Momofuku was the first album that I experienced as a “new Elvis Costello album”—I had already worked my way through a huge chunk of his discography by the time it came out, but it was the first of his albums I got to experience as a new release. For this reason, I probably have an unearned sentimental attachment to the songs. Unfairly (yet somewhat understandably) dismissed as a throwaway, Momofuku was the first album in a long while that felt like a straight-up no-frills, non-genre-touristy Elvis Costello record. It seemed particularly reminiscent of Blood and Chocolate, with its deliberately raw feel and spontaneous energy– there are a few musical and lyrical flubs scattered throughout, and Elvis makes it a point to ensure the audience hears him direct the band towards specific song sections. Though most people seemed drawn to the seething anger of opener “No Hiding Place”, the first song that really captured my imagination was “Song With Rose”, a stunningly beautiful western-sounding tragedy pulled along by 12-strings, pedal-steels and piano. Pretty ornate for an album that was ostensibly “raw” and “back-to-basics”.
To me, “Song With Rose” is the crown jewel in Momofuku, and one of Elvis’s latter-day masterpieces. Co-written by Roseanne Cash, the song has all the majesty and triumph of “Man Out of Time” condensed down to a modest 2:30 minutes of understated grandeur. Though perhaps ill-served by the tracklisting– it’s stashed away in track 10, and is immediately followed by another country-sounding tune with a more immediately appealing lyrical premise– it’s probably the most fully-realized song on an album that skirts the line between “bare bones” and “baroque”. Like “Man Out of Time”, it features an elegant melody and somewhat oblique lyrics that, along with the rich evocativeness of the instrumentation, coalesce into rapturous beauty. Like several songs on the record, it is an almost-duet with Jenny Lewis, but mixed (and likely mic’d) in such a way that her vocals are buried deep in the background, providing subtle splashes of harmonic color rather than overpowering the song. Elvis’s cracked, somewhat hoarse delivery provides the song a broken quality, highlighting the song’s themes of hope, regret, fear and forgiveness.
Ultimately, the melodic turn of the line “There is hope and after that there is only faith” is a good example of why Elvis is my all-time favorite songwriter—his ability to convey compassion and resilience with such a sweetly sad line is evidence of a master craftsman. This is a beautiful song, and it really should be more popular among his fanbase.
KEVIN DAVIS: Momofuku holds two weirdly specific (and largely meaningless, though since I remember them I feel compelled to print them) records in my life as a consumer of music: It was the first CD I bought as a married man, and the last CD by a (comparatively) niche artist that I remember seeing advertised in the newspaper. We were driving to some weekend get-together somewhere, and my new wife said, “Honey, did you know Elvis Costello has a new album coming out next week? You really like him, don’t you?” She was reading the Best Buy ad. Even in 2008, it felt weird seeing an EC album in the Best Buy ad – perhaps his then-forthcoming collaboration with Fall Out Boy had executive hopes higher than usual for his new record’s commercial success. Either way, that the album was being released on CD was welcome news that had managed to elude me to that point (the original plan was for the album to be one of those digital- and vinyl-only deals), and to this day this remains the only EC-related topic I’ve ever learned about as a result of my wife reading the local newspaper.
For me the most exciting component of Momofuku wasn’t that it saw Elvis returning to what Jorge has christened the CCS (after When I Was Cruel and Delivery Man, it seemed like a little guitar rock was not an unreasonable thing to expect from EC every few albums), but that it was his first new record of all original material in four years. His two releases from 2006 – My Flame Burns Blue and The River in Reverse – were successful enough at what they aimed to do but light on new Costello compositions, and were both somewhat academic in a sense. Momofuku was the complete opposite of those records’ carefully calculated, meticulously rendered arrangements: Twelve new originals, banged out and subsequently released in true wham-bam-thank-you’ma’am fashion (the very title “Momofuku” refers to the inventor of instant ramen noodles, referencing this creative philosophy specifically), allowing minor lyrical flubs and syncopation errors on display to keep it real. Like I did with all new EC releases, I listened to it obsessively, and always feel residual effects of that time’s newness when I listen to it now – all the excitement of being a young newlywed, the return of spring, the excitement of new Elvis Costello music in the background of these things. Even a Costello tirade like “No Hiding Place” reverberates with the zing-zing-zing of my heart strings.
That said, this week I find myself in a similar position to the one Jorge was in last week when writing about “The Greatest Thing”; for whatever reason, “Song With Rose” was one of the few Momofuku tracks that for some reason just always managed to elude me. Jorge is right that its positioning on the record does it no favors – which isn’t to say it isn’t placed to flow, only that all too often I’d start the record at the beginning intending to play it through, end up repeating “Stella Hurt” five or six times, and be out of gas by the time I’d get to “Song With Rose.” So I can probably count on both hands the number of times I’ve really sat down and given it a thoughtful listen. This exercise proved a great opportunity to do just that.
While I’d stop short of putting it in the same league as “Man Out of Time,” I do see where Jorge draws that parallel – it’s a steady, jangly arrangement, with a full-bodied piano accompaniment and a vocal melody that sort of glides over the top with just a slight disregard for rhythm. Jenny Lewis’s harmonies hit at just the right spots, and during her choruses especially I find myself thinking that this song would have almost been more spiritually at home on The Delivery Man; the vocal arrangement is a lot more in line with the traditional male-female country-style harmonies on that record than it is with the quirky, occasionally fey indie pop of Momofuku.
What really struck me about the song this time around were the lyrics, which are eloquent sans flash in a way that some of Elvis’s best post-North songs have been, drawing deep, subtle parallels between mortality and relationships and leaving it up to the listener to decide if he’s being literal or metaphorical (I had never bothered to look up the meaning of the word “wraith” – apparently it’s a “ghost or ghostlike image of someone”). My mind tends toward the latter interpretation, though the song is no less poetic either way. What a beautiful opening line “Between last breaths and first regrets/The days dragged on like cigarettes” is, so perfectly capturing that horrific limbo between an emotional tragedy and the distant moment when you can finally begin looking back on it with clarity, finally concluding that, “There is hope and, after that/There is only faith,” which apparently is enough to cause the famously skeptical EC to wonder, “Where but heaven does love end?” Yet despite the themes of regret running through the lyrics, the pervasive mood of the song is hope, driven by Pete Thomas’s unfaltering, no-frills beat (the rhythm of the song actually reminds me more specifically of Blood and Chocolate’s “Blue Chair” than it does “Man Out of Time”), culminating with a greatly impassioned if somewhat buried chorus of piano playing by Steve Nieve and going out on a final, somewhat sobering realization from EC (which, thanks to dictionary.com, I can now sort of understand): “Love like a wraith never made me afraid/Consoled as I was by that shade.”