Tuesday, September 15, 2009

MUSIC: Costello's American Idolatry

This review originally ran in the September 2009 issue of Illinois Entertainer.

Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane
(Hear Music)
The prolific Elvis Costello is wearing his America on his sleeve. Has been for his past few non-jazz, non-operatic albums. Immediacy seems to be the objective, a sense that this is the one and only time the song is played, for all it's worth, by musicians who refuse to auto-anything and actually give a hot damn about capturing a great performance. It suits the historically fastidious Costello well.

"The Crooked Line" may be a surprisingly earnest declaration of love from Costello ("If you were my life's companion/As it seems you may turn out to be"), but you can trace a crooked line up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Memphis and Nashville to get a sense of the ragtime bluegrass on display here (note to lazy reviewers: mandolin doesn't equal "country"). Producer T-Bone Burnett and a prestigious handful of roots musicians (Jerry Douglas, Dennis Crouch, and Jim Lauderdale adding spare but spot-on harmonies) bring a remarkable amount of texture to this completely drum-less acoustic collection. Evocative tracks like the shuffling and sober "Down Among The Wine and Spirits" ("Where a man gets what he merits"), the pulsing canter of "Hidden Shame" ("Must it be my secret for eternity?"), and the slightly obsessive vamp "My All Time Doll" ("You're all I adore") reveal a cast of characters trafficking in secrets profane and dreams unfulfilled. "Sulphur to Sugarcane" is jaunty and mischievous, Costello assuming the guise of a troubadour touring U.S. cities and boudoirs ("The women in Poughkeepsie/Take their clothes off when they're tipsy") with the swagger of road-hard gigolo.

Secret falls flat on a few draggers ("She Handed Me a Mirror," "How Deep is the Red"), songs written for a Hans Christian Andersen-inspired chamber opera in 2005. They're overwrought, and if there's one thing this album (and 2008's Momofuku, and 2004's The Delivery Man) prove is that urgent Elvis is more persuasive Elvis.

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