The Last Reviews Part One
Elvis Costello Leads a Superb Group of New Albums

The countdown continues.

One thing I thought about doing in this space, as my time slowly dwindles, was a holiday gift guide. We’ve seen an extraordinary amount of lavish and beautiful box sets this year, and I have a few favorites. But that seemed like a lot of work, and truth be told, I haven’t had the time to listen to all of them to the level I would like to in order to properly review each of them.

So here’s just a list, and you should hunt each of these down and explore them: Gentle Giant’s Unburied Treasure, Iona’s The Book of Iona, The Divine Comedy’s absolutely perfect Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Hard Luck Stories, the awesome Sign O’ the Times set from the Prince estate, Zappa’s Halloween ’81, and (though it is not out yet) the exhaustive-looking Closed for Business from Mansun. That list represents a nice chunk of my 2020 income, and I don’t regret a thing.

What did I decide to do in this space? Well, my opportunities to just talk about new music are quickly diminishing, and I think I would like to do that. I’m giving up this column because it takes so much time, and its audience is perishingly small. But I still love talking about music (and I’m working on ways I can keep doing that), especially new music.

What follows, this week and next, are the last regular old reviews of new music to be published in Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. In a weird way, I’m going to miss doing this. I won’t miss the weekly deadline and the need to fill all this space, even when I don’t care about (or have barely listened to) the music I’m discussing, but when I am genuinely excited about new records, I’ll miss being able to do… well, this.

Elvis Costello, Hey Clockface.

Longtime readers know that I hold Elvis Costello in the highest regard as a songwriter. I seriously cannot name a better writer – Costello has peers, but no betters, at this point in his career. He also doesn’t, at this point, need to keep showing us how good he is. He could coast along, never pushing himself, resting on his considerable laurels if he wanted to.

But he doesn’t. He’s transitioned nicely into his grumpy old man phase, but his writing has sharpened and deepened. 2018’s Look Now was a stunning piece of work, casting Costello’s latest batch of hard-luck tales and rebukes in a classic pop format. “Unwanted Number,” all by itself, would put Costello in the upper echelon of current songsmiths. He could have kept going in this style, but with Hey Clockface, he’s stomped all over it. This new thing is darker and more diverse, and in places it feels like nothing he’s done before.

Hey Clockface was recorded in three cities – Helsinki, Paris and New York – and the sessions are mixed together, giving this a mixtape feel. The Helsinki material, all of which was released as singles, is the most daring and abrasive. Drums clang and clatter, guitars slither and effects whiz by as Costello spits out his tirades in his thick, still-strong voice. “No Flag” is one of the strangest pieces Costello has written, its chaos matching the bleak portrait it paints lyrically: “No sign for the dark place that I live, no god for the damn that I don’t give…”

The bulk of the album – nine of the 14 tracks – was recorded in Paris, and while the production is delightfully off-kilter, these songs are classic Costello. “I Do (Zula’s Song)” is an utterly brilliant jazz ballad with horns to die for, the title track is a Dixieland jaunt, and piano numbers “The Whirlwind” and “Byline” are gorgeous. The New York songs, “Newspaper Pane” and the spoken-word “Radio is Everything,” add a touch of menace to the proceedings.

All wrapped together, Hey Clockface is another showcase for the unerring melodies and sophisticated songcraft that Costello seems to deliver more consistently than almost anyone. This is album 31 for Costello, and he makes the argument that so much experience can only help hone your skills. He would never write something like “Mystery Dance” now, and younger Costello could not have dreamed up the songs on this record. Following this man’s career has been one of the great joys of my music-buying life, and I hope he never quits.

Chris Stapleton, Starting Over.

Start with this: the plain white design of the Starting Over cover, with its handwritten title and byline, is my favorite of the year. It is simple, striking and effective, just like the music you will find on Stapleton’s third and best record. A country hitmaker who was clearly saving his best material for himself, Stapleton’s star has been on the rise in alt-country circles, and this is the one that should make him famous.

Lately I feel like there’s a war on for the soul of Nashville, and while bro-country rules the charts, people like Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Stapleton are trying to pull things in a more honest and traditional direction. Nothing on Starting Over should surprise you, melodically speaking. It runs the gamut from pretty ballads (“Joy of My Life”) to rockers (“Devil Always Made Me Think Twice”) to bluesier things (the two Guy Clark covers), but it’s all written and performed with an authenticity that can’t be faked. Stapleton isn’t afraid to show emotions, nor to take on wider issues, as he imagines justice for those who shoot up churches and synagogues on “Watch You Burn.”

Adding to the sonic goodness here are two of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell and pianist Benmont Tench. They know how good Stapleton is, how perfectly imperfect his voice is, how genuine songs like his can launch and sustain a decades-long career. I hope they’re right in this case, and that Stapleton sticks around for a while. If you, like me, felt a little underwhelmed by Isbell’s offering this year, you owe it to yourself to try Starting Over.

Sara Bareilles, More Love: Songs from Little Voice Season One.

Honestly, if I saw Sara Bareilles’ birth certificate and it informed me that her middle name really is “underrated,” I wouldn’t be surprised. When I talk to people about her, I find that she’s respected, but her name isn’t one that pops immediately to mind when listing off great modern songwriters. She’s quietly put together a quality catalog that includes sweet records like The Blessed Unrest and last year’s Amidst the Chaos, and also the songs for the hit musical Waitress. I love her voice and her songs, and I’m in for anything she does.

So I guess what she’s been doing lately is working on a television show, one named after her second album? I haven’t seen a frame of Little Voice, but I immediately bought this album of songs from its first season. Frankly, I have trouble believing the show could be good enough to deserve these songs. I can hear how a television show might incorporate them, but these are not cast-offs and also-rans. These are top-notch Sara Bareilles songs, and deserve to be heard in their own right.

My favorites are the slower ones, which is not to slight anthems like “More Love” and “Simple and True.” “Dear Hope” is wonderful, with a jazzy foundation, a minor key melody and some delicate cello lines. “Ghost Light” is a perfect Bareilles song, led by her piano and a soaring chorus. Those falsetto notes, good lord, they get me. And the title track of the show, “Little Voice,” is a winner. This song was written 15 years ago, and Bareilles was persuaded not to include it on her debut, for some reason. Now it’s the basis of a television show, which shows what record execs know. I’m sad we didn’t get to hear this at the time, but so glad we get to hear it now.

More Love is yet another reason why I will buy anything and everything Sara Underrated Bareilles does, from now to eternity. I just watched the trailer for the show, and it looks like something I would enjoy. I hope there is a second season, and it’s full of songs like these, and we get to hear them. I can’t wait.

Meg Myers, Thank U 4 Taking Me 2 the Disco, I’d Like 2 Go Home Now.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum is Meg Myers, whose two previous albums of electronic-tinged rock have been equal parts exciting and darkly depressing. I found Sorry to be a powerful thing, full of sweeping songs like “Desire” and “Make a Shadow” that drew from the likes of Garbage. I found her second, Take Me To the Disco, to be a little too much the same, but still pretty good. Had she stayed on this track, I probably would have lost interest, though.

Luckily, she seems on the verge of a transformation. Her in-progress third album will apparently detail a spiritual awakening, and will feel different from her first two. Hence these two Eps, released to bridge the gap. They’re made up partially of songs that didn’t make Disco, mixed in with some new ones, but they also chart some well-earned growth. These 10 songs together make a better album than Disco did, even if we are still trafficking in darkness.

Hell, just “Grizzly” by itself outdoes all of Disco, its pounding beat and big guitars supporting one of her most kick-ass choruses. “The Underground” uses a slinkier beat to do the same, delivering a singable anthem, while the painful “I Hope You Cry” closes out the first EP with a piano-led confession. The second EP turns the guitars down somewhat – “True Liars” has a winning Pat Benetar feel, while “End of the World” might be the darkest song she’s written, set to a jaunty clap beat. Final track “Last Laugh” feels like a coda and speaks to Myers’ strength, overcoming everything she details here.

This is a great piece of work in and of itself, and I’d happily consider these 10 songs Meg Myers’ third album. But more is on the way, and I’m excited to hear where she goes. Myers isn’t a household name by any stretch of the imagination, but lovers of well-considered electro-rock should give her a listen. Despite its role as a stopgap in her catalog, this is a good place to start.

Deep Sea Diver, Impossible Weight.

I’ll end this with a shout-out to Jim Worthen of Tooth and Nail Records who told me about Deep Sea Diver. It’s the project of Jessica Dobson, who has played with the Shins, Beck, Spoon and others, and serves as a showcase for her songs. And they’re really nice songs, epic and tuneful and produced exceptionally well.

Impossible Weight is the band’s third album, and it’s one of my favorite little discoveries of the year. It’s similar to Myers in that the songs are guitar-driven and the beats sound electronic (even if they’re not), but Dobson’s voice is bigger, her choruses more cathartic and emphatic. “Lights Out” has a loose trio feel to it, Dobson’s full-throated singing giving way to her awesome guitar solo, and the title track is a wonder, Dobson and Sharon Van Etten sharing vocal duties as the song pulls you under.

Really, the whole thing is great, though I have a special love for the extended jam on “Eyes Are Red (Don’t Be Afraid),” Dobson again cutting loose on the guitar. Chances are good you haven’t heard of this band either, so check out their Bandcamp site and remember to thank Jim Worthen later.

OK, that’s it for this week. Next week, more of the same, for the last time.

See you in line Tuesday morning.