Elvis Costello has long displayed a fascination with Americana. He’s even married to a Yankee girl – jazz singer Diana Krall, a transplant from Vancouver, B.C. – and the two are currently shacked up in NYC. They wed in 2003, so it’s no surprise that Costello has spent the bulk of his studio time since then mining the sounds of his adopted land. His latest LP, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, completes a trio of Americana albums he’s released this decade. Though it’s not a bad record, it is the weakest of the three.
This story begins decades ago, when Elvis Costello was still an angry young man. By October of 1981, he had released five albums of punk-tinged, new wavy guitar pop, sneering smartly at love, at the establishment, and at whatever else dared to cross his path and prod his poison pen into action. Fortified by this string of successes, he decided to fully embrace his love for country music by issuing the (mostly) covers album, Almost Blue. Suffice it to say, this was not a convincing attempt at capturing the spirits of Patsy and Hank. Costello had much greater success with 1986’s King of America. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, that album featured laid-back countrified rock, reminiscent more of the Band than Johnny Cash.
Elvis Costello picked up the Americana thread again with 2004’s The Delivery Man, an album recorded with the Imposters, his mach II version of the Attractions. With a little pedal steel guitar and some vocals from Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, the record was, like King of America, just country enough to qualify as Americana. Two years later, for The River in Reverse, Costello teamed with legendary New Orleans R&B songwriter Allen Toussaint. Now, this wasn’t Americana in the Sweethearts of the Rodeo or Jayhawks sense of the word, but surely a record so steeped in American tradition should qualify. It was Elvis exploring the music at the heart of his new nation.
He does this again on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, employing some of the best bluegrass players in the business to help him craft a cross-pollination of well-heeled Appalachia-meets-British frontman that will be familiar to anyone who’s heard 2007’s lovely Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration, Raising Sand. Good ol’ T-Bone produced that album, and he’s behind the glass again on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Given this fact, plus a band that includes dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, mandolin player Mike Compton (whose work can be heard on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack), and Plant/Krauss fiddler Stuart Duncan, as well as another guest spot from Emmylou, and you have the ingredients for a great album. You’d think that Elvis Costello would be just the man to supply the right recipes, too. The finished product, however, is a bit less than the sum of its parts.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane begins with a song, “Down Among the Wine and Spirits”, that perfectly encapsulates both the charms and the drawbacks of this album. For an opening track, the pace is pretty languid. This one trend plagues record. It’s simply hard to get excited about. On the other hand, it’s perfectly easy to enjoy. With songs like these, you could sit all afternoon and watch some wide-bodied river slowly flow on by. You just wouldn’t remember very much of this lazy day’s soundtrack. Song two, “Complicated Shadows”, might have made a better choice for the leadoff spot. It possesses more of Costello’s trademark bite, while maintaining the album’s meandering groove. Such is the way with this record. For every song that reels you in, another one or two pass by unnoticed.
Musically, “My All Time Doll” borrows the sinister cabaret feel of Spike‘s “Let Him Dangle”, but doesn’t recapture the earlier tune’s delicious dark side. Lyrically, it adds another “doll” to Costello’s house of songs, which also includes “Shabby Doll” (Imperial Bedroom) and “Doll Revolution” (When I Was Cruel). So, yes, there’s some recycling going on here. Then again, this isn’t the kind of project that begs for originality. All Costello is aiming to do is carve his initials into the great tree of American music – to say that he had played here, too. In that light, “Hidden Shame” is among the album’s best tracks. It conforms strongly to the traditions upon which it stands, with Dennis Crouch’s plucky bass line keeping the tune striding along, while Duncan’s fiddle line swoops and glides. The song is proof that Costello can have fun while working in this genre.
Unfortunately, he spends too much time mired in sentimental balladry, churning out the kind of schmaltzy, syrupy stuff that so often dampens Krauss’s records. Also, Costello’s occasional vocal lapses into show tune-worthy vibrato don’t fit well with a style of music better suited to a flat drawl. “She Handed Me a Mirror” and “I Dreamed of My Old Lover” both suffer from the singer-songwriter’s forays into more theatrical styles. Though slow of tempo, “How Deep Is the Red” avoids these pitfalls by dipping its toes into some Southern Gothic-ness and gaining emotional gravitas from the wounded weariness in Costello’s tone. “She Was No Good” walks a fine line, but wins in the end with a few nice chord changes and an element of camp, as evidenced by the hoots and hollers heard when Elvis sings, “and several drunk musicians run amok”.
You could listen to this album many times and likely not grow tired of it, especially if the voice of Elvis Costello is already a regular part of your listening diet (as well it should be). This, however, is merely an argument for not avoiding Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Whether the album is worthy of your harder-earned-than-ever cash is debatable. It’s a nice batch of songs from a guy who used to be so wickedly and wonderfully not nice. Yes, we all had to get over the maturation and mellowing of Costello ages ago, but we don’t also have to run right out and embrace his sleepy balladry, either. Despite T-Bone Burnett’s warm production, some excellent playing by the best bluegrass players around, and a few keeper cuts, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane falls all too easily into the middle ranks of Elvis Costello’s vast discography.