Elvis Costello Secret, Profane and Sugarcane(Hear Music) Buy it from Insound
Somebody keep Elvis out of Nashville, please. I mean, really, can someone at the northern border keep on the lookout for a 50-something Liverpudlian toting around a blond jazz singer and a couple of kids, asking for directions to the studio where Charlie Rich recorded? Here’s part of the problem – I love Elvis Costello. I love his eclecticism, his wit, his flights of fancy and his restlessness. So I have no issue, in theory, with EC putting on his country hat and exploring his southern muse with Emmylou and the boys. But here’s the other, more crucial part – Elvis loves Country Music. Why is that a problem? After all, shouldn’t this new album sound like an accomplished artist putting on a pair of comfortable shoes, settling in for a set of tunes that flow easily from the Aether? Sure, and that’s what bugs me about it. Usually, when he goes in for his genre experiments, he’s pushing himself into somewhat unfamiliar territory and that creates a tension that works to his advantage. People think I’m nuts but I still say that The Juliet Letters was a rousing success. Yeah, you heard me right. And guess what, Mighty Like A Rose had some great songs and the weirdest ones were the best! And I’ll even up the ante. One of EC’s best albums is King of America, and that was produced by T-Bone Burnett with bloody James Burton on guitar!
But that was way back in 1986, and it was his first foray into writing an entire album of songs in a countrified mode. By now, he knows the ropes and can probably give you a 20th century family history of the Carter Family in about 5 minutes, and that’s why this new one disappoints. The tunes are just a little too comfortable, too easy, and I suspect that like his last one, they were written quickly. I don’t know anything about his methods, but I actually prefer the stuff that he seemed to labor over. You know the ones, with the quirky chord changes and the strangely appealing melodies that don’t seem like they should work but do? There’s very little of that kind of thing here. That would be ok, if he was tossing off stuff as effortless and wonderful as American Without Tears. This stuff just seems tossed off. Sure the lyrics are as pointed as ever, and the playing is live and lively. And once in a while a songs breaks out of the mold, like Red Cotton, which is a tad preachy but still effective. And I have to admit that I get a kick out of Sulphur to Sugarcane, where he mentions every city of his American tour, including Syracuse, where I saw him. The rest of it is rote; not too bad but not too great either.
Maybe Elvis should save the country albums for when he’s really pissed at something, like he was back in ’86 with the whole Thatcher/Reagan thing. Otherwise I feel like he could churn out this stuff like an assembly line, not really trying to surprise us or himself anymore. I don’t think that’s going to happen, since he rarely stays in the same place for more than 5 minutes. He is starting to concern me though, since this is the third album in a row that has left me wallowing in mild to severe disappointment. I’m sure he’ll have a late career flowering ala Dylan. I just can’t wait for it to start.10 July, 2009 - 18:59 — Alan Shulman