Costello’s Nashville love affair continues, but while enjoyable this is no classic.
Chris Roberts 2010-10-15
Elvis Costello can’t be accused of genre-fear. Over an illustrious career of inspiring Bret Easton Ellis titles he’s also attempted opera, punk, jazz and soul. He can be forgiven then for making two consecutive studio albums which stick to a core of country and Americana. To focus on the trappings (and the list of "respected" players) however, is to miss the point. Whatever the stylings, the crux of Costello remains his songs, voice and words. It’s these which have enabled him to survive dips over decades, and avoid stagnation. His blatant craving to be identified within the Great American Songbook has also helped him to float above fashion. Last year’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane sold much more strongly in the US than in the UK, and this is effectively its sequel.
Like its predecessor, it was produced by T Bone Burnett in Nashville in under a fortnight. Musicians include recurring cohorts The Impostors and The Sugarcanes, plus cameos by Vince Gill, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell. Inevitably then, it’s "rootsy", with all the lap-steel that entails. It never works magic with such elements the way Robert Plant seems able to, but it’s a solid, generally impressive hour.
It suggests topical themes of deprivation and bankruptcy, but the lyrics play fast and loose, often digressing into standard, if dark, love ballads. The title song rages at Wall Street, a little foggily. Indeed several songs chug by placidly, hamstrung by Burnett’s generic tropes. Stations of the Cross is the first number to entice and enthral, with some of the broodiness of Pills and Soap. It breaks the rut, and the album then ascends and transcends through Five Small Words and Church Underground: Costello at his best, the music freeing up his unique voice rather than turning him into any old bar-room bluesman. (The nadir is Russell’s My Lovely Jezebel, which could be Cliff fronting Status Quo.)
Then he’ll sing something as literate and brutal/wounded as All These Strangers and remind you of his gimlet eye and keen ear. So, while it’s no Costello classic, this repays patience.