If popularity were based solely on naming conventions, Momofuku would have been insanely popular among the college crowd from the moment it was announced. Named for the inventor of cup noodles, Momofuku Ando, Elvis Costello’s first release in two years appeared roughly as quickly and with as little fanfare as the ramen to which it pays tribute. Although it was originally slated to appear only on vinyl and digital download as a protest against the record industry, Momofuku found a conventional release.
This is indicative of the way Momofuku has come about, in a sea of coincidence and unintended consequences. It arrived shortly after Costello swore off recording ever again and seems to be largely a by-product of his collaboration with Jenny Lewis on “Rabbit Fur Coat.” He arrived in-studio with much of his backing group already present and soon recorded some of his own tracks along with Lewis’. These first tracks laid the foundation for the rest of the record, recorded in a few weeks and without the laborious planning evident in his latter-period releases.
Rather than getting lost in the pop pretension that seems to plague older songwriters, Momofuku is a straightforward Elvis Costello record more in the mold of My Aim is True rather than North or some of his more recent releases. The album is without highlights, but that’s more of a tribute to the consistent quality of every song rather than a commentary on its failings. It opens with three rockers, although still imbued with the irreverent spirit that has inflected his catalogue from the beginning. Even the irrepressible pop swagger of “American Gangster Time” has some political message (“It’s a drag saluting that starry rag”), although he allows those sentiments to slip in, not dominate the song. That is where Costello is at his best: recording a simple pop song with a catchy hook, inserting something “subversive,” which is made all the moreso because it seems more of like an afterthought than the song’s “point.”
“Turpentine” is a shining example of Costello’s strong songwriting voice. Although there is a ton going on sonically with it, including overdubs that might make The Beatles a little embarrassed, it is still recognizably an Elvis Costello song. It would be easy to get lost in experimentation and meander about with all the instrumentation and backing vocals in the song, but Costello manages to keep it in motion and avoids the pratfalls and loss of focus that would be so easy in a song of that magnitude.
The closing track, “Go Away,” might be the closest Costello comes to his beginnings on the entire album, with its background organ and shout-along chorus. It’s the perfect closing to an album that returns to his roots – easy to visualize singing in a bar crowded with extremely drunk and extremely literate college students as they welcome the end of the school year. That’s the thing about the album: LKike its namesake, it feeds those who study.