Writing About Music: Look Now

Writing about music has always been a challenge for me; if you could put it into words there’d be no need to write a song about it, right? As a wise man once said, even though no one is really sure who he was: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

Even so, life is all about challenging yourself, so I’ve decided to write something about the music I’m currently listening to. Maybe you’ll like it, too.

My Itunes is currently playin Elvis Costello’s new album Look Now on repeat. It was released on October 12th of this year, which was something of a happening for me as I’ve been a major fan of Costello’s since my teenage years. When I felt rebellious and angry, I listened to This Year’s Model. When I felt sad and misunderstood, Painted From Memory was my jam, with its sweet, slow tunes co-written with Burt Bacharach. If you don’t know Bacharach you’re missing out; among other things, he wrote I Say A Little Prayer, Do You Know The Way to San Jose and I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.  When I felt slightly pretentious and cooler than anyone else, I would listen to Imperial Bedroom on my Ipod Nano. Imperial Bedroom is a bombastic album, full of diverse and overwhelming sounds. Imperial Bedroom was produced by Geoff Emerick, who was a sound engineer for the Beatles’ Revolver. To this day Costello’s albums are amongst my favorites. He is an artist I always come back to. Additionally, he’s incredible as a live performer, and I’ve made it my mission to see as many of his live shows as I can, on one occasion travelling as far as Antwerp.


So when, not long after the Antwerp performance, Costello decided to cut his European tour short because of a major health issue, I was alarmed. I was worried that this summer’s Costello experience might have been my last. Mostly, I felt like a dear friend had fallen ill, and I fervently hoped for his speedy and full recovery. Currently, Costello is touring the US and he appears to be doing quite well.  


Look Now is the kind of album which, when you put it on for the first time, kicks in your front door and shouts: “I’m here, you’d better listen.” The first song, Under Lime, is a thumper if ever I heard one. The album then drastically shifts gears with the second song, Don’t Look Now, which was co-written by Burt Bacharach. Understandably, Don’t Look Now is much slower than the song which precedes it, but somehow its sweetness beautifully offsets Under Lime’s pounding rhythm. Two other songs on the album were co-written by Bacharach and they have that same bittersweet tone to them, adding beautiful variety to a tracklist that was impressive to begin with. Costello previously co-wrote an album of songs with Bacharach in 1998: Painted From Memory. The third song, Burnt Sugar is So Bitter, was co-written by Carole King, who wrote the theme for Gilmore Girls. Costello and King collaborated on this song way back in the nineties, but it never made it onto a studio album until now. One wonders why, because it’s gorgeous. The song features an impressive brass section and Motownish background singers, creating an almost overwhelmingly full sound.

“I knew if we could make an album with the scope of ‘Imperial Bedroom’ and some of the beauty and emotion of ‘Painted From Memory’, we would really have something,” said Costello, and it sounds like that’s exactly what he did. The next song, Stripping Paper, could have come straight from Painted From Memory and its follow-up, Unwanted Number, has a full, distinctly Bedroom-ish sound to it.

I won’t review the album track-by-track, especially since I can’t do justice to the complexities of all these songs in writing. It is remarkable, however, how many of these songs appear to be written from a female perspective. I count at least six on an album of twelve songs. I don’t know what to make of that, exactly. I wouldn’t exactly describe the women who get to speak in these songs as feminist, as all the songs are about their relationships to men and in some cases they very explicitly exemplify the male gaze. This is reminiscent of Imperial Bedroom’s beautiful song Long Honeymoon, in which a woman sits around for hours waiting for her husband to come home. Perhaps these songs from the female perspective can be seen as a response to the contemporary discourse on feminism and 21st century understandings of female agency.

Feminist analysis aside, Costello has produced a remarkable album. Irrationally, some of my concerns about his health and the future of his career have been ameliorated by the quality and energy displayed in Look Now. I feel like a teenager again from the pleasure listening to this album brings me, and I’d definitely give it five stars.

Julia website

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