Elvis Costello has awoken a sleeping beast. Or rather, it has awoken him. It's happening at Mississippi's Sweet Tea recording studio, with Costello holding court as the session's medium. A guitar snarls drowsily like a dehydrated mutt chained to a fence. The bass pumps like a bullfrog's gullet. The vocal stutters and squeals uneasily: "Don't want to hear some little sniveling / You just don't get what I'm delivering / Maybe you want me / But you know you can't / I'd say 'I want you' / But you know I don't... / Button my lip with your kiss". It's as if the narrator of "Alison" has finally followed through on his darkest impulses, sealing his secrets closed with a bitter lust. The song hiccups along over a one-chord vamp, forcefully masking its undeserved repentance, until Costello's narrator has washed his sin in muddy water: "I stand accused but I am innocent / I am the mighty and magnificent".
The song is "Button My Lip", lead-off track from The Delivery Man, the 21st studio record of Costello's illustrious career. It's an album submerged in the music (namely, blues, soul, and country) and mythos of the American South. Always one to authenticate his sound, Costello brought his backing band the Imposters (essentially the Attractions with Davey Faragher replacing the on-again-off-again Bruce Thomas on bass) to Mississippi in order to ensure that the songs evolved within a legitimate environment. It all works miraculously, thanks to Costello and the Imposters' hopped up moxie and the raw, gestating production of Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Buddy Guy). This is a classic Costello record, the kind that is infused with a particular pop idiom from his encyclopedic backlog of musical history. While some of his critics will accuse him of rubbernecking with his own rock-snob fascinations, Costello's songs grandly soak up the South's mystique instead of sinking to fashionable mimicry.
The impetus for The Delivery Man is "Hidden Shame", a song Costello had written for Johnny Cash in the mid-'80s. The song's character (assuming the name Abel for this record) was inspired by a real-life story of a man who confessed to the murder of a childhood friend after a prison stay for lesser crimes. "Hidden Shame"'s lyrical twist ("They locked me up here for the ideas in my head / They never got me for the thing I really did") is an appropriate starting point for one of The Delivery Man's central themes: the idea that one can find a sort of substituted redemption for a past crime by paying for a lesser one. That concept is echoed from Abel's point of view in the title track: "When they let me out, I had a brand new identity".
Costello wrote the record's songs with a storyline and cast of supporting characters in mind (Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams occasionally duet in the roles of Vivian, Geraldine, and Ivy), but arranges them with nonlinear, Faulknerian logic. Which is of no consequence to enjoying the songs on their own; by destroying the record's through-line, we're allowed to focus more on the individual tunes than the complicated scenario that binds them. The puzzle plot is to The Delivery Man what the anonymous letters are to The Juliet Letters or the military metaphors are to Armed Forces.
There's a waking violence at the core of The Delivery Man: violent acts are on the verge of being committed or bubble to the surface of repressed memory. "Country Darkness" smolders like an old Stax ballad, with Costello issuing a velvet-tongued warning: "The veil is covering a glistening and cruel blade / Suffer little children / Repent, unfaithful maid". The salient, jagged "The Name of This Thing is Not Love" witnesses "a bruise on her arm / And some blood on the floor", later seeking to lay blame for instigation: "Who in the world do you think you are? / That you pushed me this far". In the gnarled blues of "Needle Time" (which is like Tom Waits on No-Doz), Costello treads where love and brutality smudge into gray: "I'm trying not to despise you with a passion / That is hard to extinguish / Or maybe I really love you / Although it's hard to distinguish".
Yet amidst its sometimes heavy subject matter, The Delivery Man is far from a gospel of gloom. The Imposters sound positively invigorated throughout the record, cutting some of the most enjoyable tracks in Costello's recent history. "Monkey to Man", a blues shuffle that incorporates a mangled attempt of the guitar riff from the Beatles' "Drive My Car", is a witty evolutionary swipe told from the primate's viewpoint. While conjuring '50s rock 'n' roll and old blues, Costello tackles ingrained hypocrisy ("Points up to heaven with cathedral spires / All the time indulging in his base desires") and righteous posturing ("In the fashionable nightclubs and finer precincts / Man uses words to dress up his vile instincts"). The album's most incendiary track is the cold water splash of "Bedlam", which erupts from Pete Thomas' thunderous drum pattern into a lumbering, riff-driven behemoth. Costello's in vintage form here, spewing cinematic verbiage of war, revenge, and squalor as fast as the words can leave his bottlenecked mind.
Costello's last rock record, When I Was Cruel (let's conveniently forget that the sleepy eyed North ever happened), was heralded by critics and fans alike, knighting it a long-delayed "return to form". Such blind praise was really a collective grasping of straws and fervent well-wishing: anxious ears heard a distorted guitar and revved-up beats and thought, "THIS year's model!" It's easy to see now (with props given to hindsight) that Costello tossed out some bait and acolytes (myself included, mind you) lunged for his decoy. In truth, When I Was Cruel was a ruse, for it dressed up some humdrum tunes in a gross fetishist embrace of technology. He had reclaimed the attitude of the Angry Young Man, but sacrificed his mature melodic stature in the process.
In addition, the term "return to form" implies little meaning to an artist of Costello's breadth; his career has routinely dismissed form for evolution. Tracing the numerous pinnacles of Costello's 25-year musical orbit is a contorted galaxy quest: the new wave destruction of This Years Model and Armed Forces, the amphetamine-laced Motown jones of Get Happy!, the complex pub rock of Trust, the baroque songbook of Imperial Bedroom, and King of America's Americana expressionism all shift to new palettes while retaining a recognizable voice. Even his less satisfying ventures into classical and jazz music are commendable for their refusal to repeat past explorations.
Which is why The Delivery Man is so much more a vital component of "the Costello experience". Besides the immediacy and worn-in comfort of its songs, The Delivery Man is more than just rock music for rock's sake; it's a set of songs about something very palpable and human. Blood pumps through its veins. It's the Real McCoy following When I Was Cruel's MacGuffin. The songs here are as emotionally attainable as they are formally skintight: rapturous ballads ("Nothing Clings Like Ivy", "Either Side of the Same Town"), new standards for an old world ("The Judgement", originally written for Solomon Burke), glimpses of ragged skepticism ("The Delivery Man").
Costello just turned 50, and unlike many of his peers, he's never suffered through an extended artistic funk. For every Goodbye Cruel World, there's always a Blood & Chocolate around the corner; likewise, for every North (or, more appropriately, When I Was Cruel), there's The Delivery Man. Not every Costello record is a triumphant masterpiece these days, but The Delivery Man is arguably his most cohesive, magnetic collection of songs since Blood & Chocolate and the highlight of his middle-age years. The Delivery Man is the sound of Costello squeezing blood from a song. There's nothing like listening as each one is wrung dry.