First Look: New Elvis Costello Album


We say: National
Ransom, produced by T Bone Burnett and out
this week on Hear Music, just might be Declan’s best release in nearly two


By Steve Pick

Twenty-five years ago, Elvis Costello was at a crossroads.
Though he had at his disposal one of the greatest rock’n’roll bands ever
assembled in the persons of the Attractions, he was itching to see what his
songs could do with different players. With the aid of his new friend, producer
T Bone Burnett, he found out on a record called King of America, which gave him an assortment of new sidemen to
provide different tonal and rhythmic colors.


Things aren’t quite the same nowadays. While he’s been
steadily employing the Imposters (basically Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas of the
Attractions with bassist Davey Faragher replacing Bruce Thomas) for over a
decade, it’s not as though Costello hasn’t been seeing other people all along.
But, returning to Burnett, who is now one of the busiest and most successful
producers in the remnants of the adult alternative field, Costello puts his
sixteen new songs through almost as many different combinations of accompanying
players.  National Ransom is a hard album to grasp at first, but the variety
of approaches turns into a unifying feature.  



The Imposters are all here, though Faragher’s signature
syncopated bass lines full of dynamic movement only turn up once this time
around. So are the Sugarcanes, the touring version of the acoustic band which
recorded last year’s Secret, Profane
& Sugarcane
album. And if T Bone Burnett is producing these days, you
know guitar maverick Marc Ribot will get a phone call. For that matter, so does
another recent client of Burnett,
Leon Russell,
who co-wrote a song with Costello and the producer, and wound up playing piano
on it. In addition, country singer Vince Gill contributes a beautiful harmony
vocal, and Buddy Miller lends less audible support on a couple tracks.


As usual, only the sketchiest of lyrical ideas can be
tracked the first dozen or so times listening. Costello has never lost his
penchant for intricate wordplay, complex shifting perspectives, and downright
confusing references. This helps to give his music legs – it’s entirely possible
now to hear a song from My Aim Is True,
or Spike, or The Delivery Man (from 1977, 1989, and 2004 respectively) and
suddenly notice a thematic subtext that hadn’t been apparent the first hundred
times you heard it. No question the title track has something to do with the
2008 failure of the economy, and “You Hung the Moon” is about a séance with a
soldier, but not much else is obvious this early. “A Slow Drag With Josephine”
may not mean anything specific (yet), but the wordplay matches the impish
melody and impossibly simple yet delightful acoustic guitar part: lines such as
“He tried to skiddle-diddle-do,” or “Cursed the nurse that named me first,” or
even “Dancing the hesitation . . . . waltz” bring smiles as further meaning
slowly ekes its way to the fore.


Melodically, though, Costello puts his best feet forward
right away. It’s hard to believe, but this is his 26th album, all
but 4 of which are primarily full of original material, and he’s still finding
new ways to make his music sound fresh and inventive. Whether he’s rocking out
(“National Ransom,” “The Spell That You Cast,” or the Russell-led “My Lovely
Jezebel”), crooning (“Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” “You Hung the Moon,” or
“All These Strangers”) or mixing and matching other genres (country soul on
“That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving”; jazz balladry on “One Bell
Ringing”; Cole Porter standard style on “You Hung the Moon” or crossing the 30s
Bing Crosby with the 50s Frank Sinatra on “A Voice in the Dark,” Costello still
has no match when it comes to simply connecting notes into expressive,
memorable, perfectly shaped tunes.


Unlike most of the albums he’s produced of late, Burnett
lets the music breathe organically, with an open, vibrant, and somewhat relaxed
sound the norm. The rockers do have a little of his cloistered feel, but the
bands are so expressive, and Costello so forceful a singer, that they work just
fine. There is a depth here which may have been lacking on Costello’s last
couple of original efforts, and a range that recalls only a handful of records
in his career. At least his best since The
Delivery Man
, National Ransom just
might turn out to have the longest legs of anything he’s done since the 1996 All This Useless Beauty. It will be
nothing but pleasure to find out.


Photo Credit: James O’Mara



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