Album review: Elvis Costello, National Ransom
Elvis Costello: National Ransom Hear Music, £13.99 ****
FOR his 33rd album, Elvis Costello continues the Nashville love-in which commenced with last year's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, a charming country collection which Costello now describes as a "range-finding shot". On National Ransom, he aims for so many targets that the cast of musicians has swollen into quite an impressive shooting party.
The Sugarcanes, his new band of country brothers, including singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale and respected dobro/lap steel player Jerry Douglas, report for action, while his regular house band The Imposters are brought back into the fold. Vince Gill, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell drop by too.
The results were dispatched in 11 days with T Bone Burnett at the production helm. It is a testament to the talent of the ensemble that they can do justice to 16 songs in such a no-nonsense time frame. As a whole, National Ransom does feel a bit like a bespoke jam session, one where judicious attention has been given to who plays what where.
Costello's plan for the opening title track was to bring together a trio of diverse instrumentalists - Douglas, electric guitarist Marc Ribot and his trusty keyboard player Steve Nieve - as a portent of the appealing genre clash of the rest of the album.
This song alone is dense with internal rhymes, historical references and visual metaphors, and it dovetails with the sleeve illustration of a wolf running off with a bagful of burning cash. Its condemnation of Wall Street folly is, according to Costello, "for the bankrupt times, whenever they may be".
But National Ransom is more a collection of vignettes than the pursuit of a theme. Costello has envisaged historical and geographical settings for each song, which are noted in the lyrics booklet. To avoid being too prescriptive about the lyrics, they are intended as embellishing features rather than definitive meanings.
Some are personal. Dr Watson, I Presume (which is timestamped Wilkesboro, North Carolina - 2007) is a trad country ramble recounting Costello's first meeting a couple of years ago with country guitar legend Doc Watson.
Some are political. One Bell Ringing's postscript - the London Underground, 22 July 2005 - refers pointedly to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, and the song is a bleak yet poetic meditation on the violent snuffing out of a life, couched in mournful jazz woodwind and brass tones.
But National Ransom is also full of richly drawn fictional characters such as the forlorn Jimmie Rodgers tribute act touring the north of England in Jimmie Standing In The Rain.Costello's old-time jazz portrait of a solitary life on the road may be loaded with period references but his images of "stale bread curling on a luncheon counter, loose change lonely, not the right amount" strike a wider emotional chord.
The sparse finger-picking good singer/songwriter fare of Bullets For The New-Born King chronicles the regrets of a penitent assassin with expert eloquence, while All These Strangers, one of the most tragic and touching songs on the album, follows a spurned lover's thoughts from romanticised revenge fantasy to resignation, from action hero to lonely mourner.
You Hung The Moon is a particularly elegant and heartbreaking example of Costello's storytelling skills. His suggested setting is "a drawing room in Pimlico, London - 1919" where a bereft family are conducting a sance to connect with the war dead. There's a further, painful twist as the soldier's fate is revealed.
With lyrical inspiration from all over the shop, Costello also casts his musical net wide. A Slow Drag With Josephine is a delightful tea dance outlining the steps of a courtship from the "hesitation waltz" to "flirtation and temptation". There is more Tin Pan Alley-style wit and wordplay in the sassy country swing number A Voice In The Dark which claims "you can read right through a book of matches, but that won't make you smart" for starters.
In rocking contrast, The Spell That You Cast starts out with a Sonic Youth-style melodic grunge riff which within ten seconds has been soaked into a singalong country blues boogie.
But even when Elvis is doing what Elvis generally does - on, for example, the quintessential countrified Costello ballad That's Not The Park Of Him You're Leaving (set, appropriately, "on the road between dismal and discouraged") or the passionate piano-led portrait of a nightclub singer on Church Underground - he still sounds wholly committed to honing his skills as songwriter and bandleader. And 33 albums into a career, that is an enviable place to be.
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