First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2010, Volume 17, #12
Written by John Metzger
Tue December 14, 2010, 06:30 AM CST
These days, there is no such thing as a typical album from Elvis Costello. For most of his career, he has resisted the urge to adhere to any kind of formulaic routine. Instead, he has pursued a multitude of paths. In the process, he has dabbled in every imaginable sub-genre of rock-, pop-, and Americana-imbued fare and explored his interest in classical arrangements. Some of his fans have found Costello’s restless nature to be quite frustrating. It is, after all, impossible to know just which of his personas is going to show up at any given time. Those with greater amounts of tolerance and patience, however, likely have found that the subtleties he weaves into the fabric of his recordings inevitably make them quite rewarding, if only the outings are given a chance to shine.
Last year, Costello reconvened with producer T Bone Burnett to construct Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. On the surface, the set appeared to be a bluegrass-tinged collection of material. However, Costello’s unique approach combined with his unwillingness to play anything straight bathed the song cycle in a wider array of textures than just the Americana music it was meant to embrace. Many of the same performers who helped Costello bring Secret, Profane & Sugarcane to life — namely, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, and Jim Lauderdale — are also present on his latest set National Ransom. Additionally, the endeavor boasts appearances by Vince Gill, Leon Russell, and Buddy Miller as well as his rock outfit The Imposters.
As it turns out, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane was merely the first step in Costello’s re-examination of his canon. National Ransom completes Costello’s journey, folding nearly every aspect of his sometimes esoteric oeuvre into a single, surprisingly seamless effort. Admittedly, it isn’t an easy album to grasp. However, once one realizes that National Ransom is, for all intents and purposes, a double-LP — one that is divided into four distinct and relatively equal sides — the collection becomes much more accessible.
Once again under the watchful eye of Burnett, Costello scattered a quartet of songs throughout National Ransom. These provide easy points of entry to the endeavor, ones that act as signposts simply because they are most closely associated with his rock-oriented past. The full-throttle roar of the title track biliously takes aim at Wall Street. Five Small Words feeds the Everly Brothers through the bombast of Brutal Youth. I Lost You is a spry blast of country-rock, while The Spell That You Cast leans heavily upon the earliest outings in Costello’s canon.
The other 12 tracks on National Ransom feed Costello’s restless, adventurous spirit. Jimmie Standing in the Rain embraces a boozy, New Orleans-imbued groove; My Lovely Jezebel is a raging blues tune. Dramatic swells of brass grace Church Underground; Bullets for the New Born King is a lean folk song, accompanied by finger-picked guitar. Costello’s flair for theatrical flourishes comes to light on One Bell Ringing, while All These Strangers showcases his newfound affinity for using bluegrass instrumentation to approximate a classical string quartet.
Although the songs on National Ransom cover an almost unfathomable amount of terrain, Costello and Burnett deftly sequence them in a manner that eases the transitions. Likewise, there are themes and images that are repeated throughout the endeavor. Most often, the songs are used to relay tales of deception, deceit, and betrayal, but as the broken hearts and frayed hopes begin to stack up, Costello uses his sleight-of-hand technique to make it seem as if the songs are more connected than they are. In the end, National Ransom seems to clear the deck — much like When I Was Cruel did in 2002 — while also leaving the door open for a full range of future possibilities.
Of Further Interest...
National Ransom is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2010 The Music Box