The Delivery Man
The Music Box's #8 album of 2004
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2004, Volume 11, #11
Written by John Metzger
Those who found Neil Young’s Greendale to be a convoluted affair will be positively perplexed by the storyline on Elvis Costello’s The Delivery Man. Originally conceived as a tale that examined its subject’s relationships with the women he seduced as he journeyed throughout the American South, the final product was stripped completely of its narrative thread when Costello opted to present the songs in a non-linear fashion, removing several key tracks in the process. Despite his jumbling of the plot, however, the album is an overwhelming success and likely became better due to his instinct to lose the lesser tracks, even if it meant abandoning his initial thematic concept for a series of ambient snapshots and political statements.
Much like 2002’s When I Was Cruel, Costello pulls no punches in telling his tales of debauchery, abuse, and deceit, and musically, The Delivery Man follows a similar path of folding the diversity of his career upon itself in intriguing fashion. Recorded at Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Mississippi, The Delivery Man often hints at the South’s rich heritage, most notably on the heavy, blues-baked turbulence of Needle Time; the soulful strains of The Judgement; and the pedal steel-colored tracks Country Darkness and Heart Shaped Bruise. Yet, none of the arrangements ever stray outside the realm of Costello’s varied terrain, with The Name of This Thing Is Not Love sounding like a lost track from the Spike sessions, There’s a Story in Your Voice pouring Armed Forces into an alt-country shredder, and Bedlam reprising the Los Lobos-inspired fury of When I Was Cruel’s frenetic 15 Petals.
Some, of course, may see this re-visitation of the past as a bit of a problem, and for most artists it would be. Rather than simply regurgitate the same songs with diminishing results, however, Costello refreshingly refines them, continuously discovering a sophisticated, yet edgy, perspective for his whimsical musings. Button My Lip boldly opens the set by recasting a roadhouse boogie as a twisted mass of chaotically dissonant mayhem; Monkey to Man reshapes Dave Bartholomew’s New Orleans-stoked commentary on evolution into a punk-informed, R&B shuffle; and Either Side of the Same Town soars amidst the heartfelt refrains of its country-soul flourishes. Through it all, Costello’s voice bends, dips, soars, and glides with all the majesty of a trained jazz singer; his longtime accompanist Steve Nieve alternates between sumptuous piano gestures and quirky keyboard textures; Davey Faragher pokes and prods the material with a deep rumble of bass; and drummer Pete Thomas propels the songs forward with super-powered blasts and graceful brush strokes.
That’s not a bad outcome for a once-drunken lout who cast aside his label’s chosen single to perform exactly what he wanted within the public eye of a Saturday Night Live episode. That brashness likely would have killed the career of a lesser talent, but Costello, well, he wields a pen that is mighty like a rose and an artistic vision that is too grand to be constrained. Indeed, the notion that he not only is still making albums, but also persists in making relevant ones seems to say it all, and even better is the certainty that The Delivery Man compares favorably with the finer moments of his career.
The Delivery Man is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box