Pity the poor protagonist of the title song of Elvis Costello’s All This Useless Beauty, a faintly disgusted female aesthete who’d ”be tempted to spit, if she wasn’t so ladylike,” at the thought of how miserably modern life stacks up against idealized antiquity. Wandering into an art museum, this character can’t help comparing her slouching careerist of a husband with the handsome classical statues on display, which leads her to a Costelloian discourse on all sorts of contemporary decay: ”Nonsense prevails, modesty fails/Grace and virtue turn into stupidity/While the calendar fades almost all barricades to a pale compromise.” Whew. She’s last millennium’s model, and a gal after Elvis’ own heart.
Speaking of useless beauty, there’s the matter of how far Costello’s uncompromisingly genteel craft continues to diverge from the alternative mainstream. The ballad-heavy Beauty — overall, possibly the mildest-tempered album he’s ever made — isn’t the trick that will reverse his recent commercial fortunes, despite renewed marquee billing for the Attractions, who stay on the muted side on all but a handful of tunes. Loyalists, however, can rest easy knowing the record’s relative quietude camouflages plenty of unladylike phlegm and bile. The tenderly spat opener, ”The Other End of the Telescope,” and especially the Dylanesque ”You Bowed Down” (previously recorded by ‘Til Tuesday and Roger McGuinn, respectively) rank with Costello’s finest put-down songs. And in at least two other numbers, the singer toys with telling someone to ”go to hell.” Beautifully. A-