If Elvis Costello ever makes good on his threat to stop making albums, we’d be a greedy lot to protest. Costello could’ve quit the game after Blood & Chocolate and still found his icon status written in cement. After flirting with irrelevance during the 1990s, the man born Declan MacManus has spent the last decade brazenly genre hopping at a speed that easily embarrasses the majority of his contemporaries. While the unmistakable sound of his legendary voice, along with his compositional skills, seem to somehow grow more refined with each passing year, Costello has recently expanded his repertoire to include a remarkable stint as a talk show host. With the transition from angry young man to dapper rock ‘n’ roll elder statesman and citizen of the world long complete, Costello could be scarcely be faulted for hanging up his fedora and leaving the (allegedly) antiquated business of recording an album to the younger set.
While the debate over the usefulness of the album format in modern times is likely to rage on until music ceases being pressed to wax, Costello’s latest effort, the T-Bone Burnett produced National Ransom, offers evidence to both sides of the debate. The album somehow manages to be both a sprawling, richly cinematic throwback LP and a schizophrenic anti-album at the same time. Having mastered nearly every genre of popular music save for hip-hop, Costello has been mindful about approaching each project with a specific genre in mind. National Ransom, however, marks perhaps the first time where the man has fearlessly dabbled in different genres under the same umbrella. It would make for a jarring listen had Costello not filled it with some of the most expansive songwriting of an already storied career. Recorded in quick bursts down in Nashville, the album sounds like something Costello has been plotting out for most of the last decade.
Boasting a roster that includes Costello’s recent bluegrass collective the Sugarcanes, members of the Imposters, along with high profile visits from Leon Russell, Jerry Douglas, and Vince Gill, National Ransom is arranged like an Elvis Costello choose-your-own-adventure. Over the first three tracks Costello dabbles in propulsive Americana, folky balladry, and slinky, stormy weather jazz. These are the colors that Costello will intermittently paint with throughout. All that’s missing is a map that guides listeners to the follow up track that best suits the sort of Costello experience they’re looking for.
Listening to the bracing title track, one expects to find a concept album where Costello spews his always highly literate invective at Wall Street swindlers. Indeed he sounds justifiably enraged singing “They’re running wild just like some childish tantrum / Meanwhile we’re working everyday paying off the National Ransom” over Marc Ribot’s torrential guitar solo. The location changes almost instantly when a delicately strummed acoustic guitar announces the New Orleans funeral march “Jimmie Standing in the Rain”. The setting is now Lancaster Station in the 1930s and our man Jimmie, a third generation Jimmie Rodgers knock off similarly afflicted with tuberculosis, can’t secure himself a decent seat on a train let alone a woman who can remember his name. These are the sort of characters who populate National Ransom: brokenhearted entertainers and the ghosts of those who have had their lives unjustly ripped away from them. This hardly makes for a miserable listen as Costello seeks to celebrate or at least give a final voice to these characters rather than pity them.
The album’s generous footnotes offer small clues to the actual stories often somewhat obscured by Costello’s clever wordplay. The hard swinging, horn blasted “Church Underground” follows the trail of a struggling Depression-era actress as she fumbles her way through 10-cent dances and moving pictures while the gorgeously finger picked “Bullets for the Newborn King” tracks a pair of regret-stricken assassins to 1950s Central America. If the guardians of the Great American Songbook are still accepting submissions they need look no further the brilliantly heartbreaking “You Hung the Moon”. Backed by celestial strings and a mournful bass clarinet, Costello goes full on balladeer as he sings of a family so wrung out by their WWI losses that they’ve turned to clairvoyants to assist in communicating with the departed. I doubt there will be a verse this year as simple and sad as “The shore is a parchment / The sea has no tide / Since he was taken from my side.”
Burnett is a producer who seems to chase down Grammy gold with every album created under his watch. He and Costello, frequent collaborators since 1986s King of America, sounded uninspired on last year’s toothless Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. On this go around they wisely leave the studio door wide open for a talented supporting cast that constantly finds subtle ways to add new colors to Costello’s canvas. As usual, Costello’s voice dwarfs pretty much everything else around it (if you’re singing harmonies with Elvis you’re always going to sound like you’re a few rows behind him). From Stuart Duncan’s electric violin on “Stations of the Cross” to Leon Russell’s giddy piano solo on “My Lovely Jezebel”, there’s a wealth of performances here that enliven the most middling numbers. It all comes to a head on the furious “The Spell That You Cast”, a bracing rocker where Costello briefly dips into his New Wave roots. While Costello dials up some lusty adolescent torments, Steve Nieve’s Vox Continental dukes it out with rockabilly guitar and boogie woogie piano.
When Costello released When I Was Cruel back in 2002 it was heavily marketed as a comeback album. While he has never been out of the public eye for very long, that album marked the moment where a happily remarried Costello seemed to fall in love with making music again. National Ransom sounds like yet another rebirth that looks backwards and forward at the same time. An occasionally frustrating front-to-back listen, it’s nevertheless a perfect album for our attention span challenged time. Costello seems to realize that you probably wouldn’t want to bask in the radiant pop glow of “I Lost You” and think about the assassination of Jean Charles de Menezes in the same afternoon anyway.
When musicians pass the age of 55 they have a tendency to start making albums that we purchase only out of duty (when was the last time you pulled Paul McCartney’s Driving Rain off the shelf?). 33 years deep into his career, Elvis Costello continues to challenge both himself and his audience. If his latest is any indication he’ll continue inspiring us well into his twilight years.
// Notes from the Road
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