Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
John Metzger's #9 album for 2009
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2009, Volume 16, #8
Written by John Metzger
Wed August 26, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
Despite his repeated threats to retire from recording, Elvis Costello thankfully remains as busy as ever. Last year, he became so reinvigorated by his collaboration with Jenny Lewis that he quickly whipped together Momofuku, thereby abandoning his decision to stop making albums. Recorded in less than a week, the outing found Costello urgently surveying the landscape of his rock ’n‘ roll persona. With its stylistic breadth and equally spontaneous birth, his latest project Secret, Profane & Sugarcane follows the same basic blueprint. The only difference is that, this time, Costello built his foundation upon roots-oriented, Americana-bred fare.
This, of course, is a concept with which Costello has toyed in the past, though the results have been somewhat mixed and incomplete. Convincing as it was, his 1981 effort Almost Blue was simply an amalgamation of country covers that he performed with The Attractions. Five years later, leaving his band behind, he joined forces with T Bone Burnett to produce King of America’s acoustic-minded framework. More recently, he not only has worked with both Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn, but he also shaded parts of his Southern narrative The Delivery Man with an array of country-oriented textures. Throughout Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Costello revisits all of these junctures, though he also blurs the lines among them, essentially carrying his ideas about the roots of American music much further than he ever has in the past.
Reunited with Burnett and backed by a stellar supporting cast that includes dobro player Jerry Douglas, vocalist Jim Lauderdale, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and bass player Dennis Crouch — Costello effectively rolls back the clock and invests in a slew of creaky, old-time tunes. Often, his songs sound like sequels of sorts to the material that graced Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ blockbuster outing Raising Sand. In fact, the basic tenets that lie at the core of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane — from Complicated Shadow’s atmospheric blues to Hidden Shame’s Everly Brothers-inspired groove, and from the crushing heartache of I Felt the Chill to the Beatle-esque substrate of She Handed Me a Mirror — are nearly identical to those that lurked within Raising Sand.
Still, nothing with Costello is ever quite what it initially appears to be. There’s always some hidden motive, some grand twist to what is expected. Sure enough, operatic overtures and classical motifs — such as the Kurt Weill-gone-country tune Red Cotton — are tucked into the bluegrass-tinted framework of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. The songs never really shine as brightly as those explored on the self-titled debut from Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet. Instead, they unfold like genre-bending exercises because the string-band arrangements, lovely as they may be, feel almost forced into place. Fortunately, only a few of the tracks suffer this fate, and their shortcomings are transcended by their lyrical contributions to the outing.
Binding everything together is the notion that Costello is trying to use Secret, Profane & Sugarcane to tell some sort of story. Given that the endeavor is composed of a mishmash of material culled from his other projects, it should be a mess of a tale. Taken literally, it is. Songs written for Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn are paired with selections Costello plucked from an opera he was writing about Hans Christian Anderson as well as a track that never made it onto The Delivery Man. In some ways, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane very well could be an attempt to clear the decks before he walks away.
Within the songs on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, cheaters, drunkards, gangsters, circus barkers, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells abound. Yet, as the set moves toward its final moments, Costello contemplates eternal companionship (The Crooked Line) before distilling life into a square dance filled with longing on a cover of Changing Partners, a tune that most often is associated with Bing Crosby. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is an examination of the many ways in which either love can go wrong or a heart can be left unfulfilled, but in the end, it serves as a strangely satisfying pledge of devotion to his wife.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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