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Elvis Costello - The Delivery Man

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Artist: Elvis Costello

Album: The Delivery Man

Label: Lost Highway

Review date: Nov. 17, 2004

Over the last 15 years, Elvis Costello has made it increasingly impossible to conceive of his albums in typical pop musicological fashion. Viewing his works as constituent pieces of a recording career, with a traceable trajectory and artistic development from work to work, is fruitless. The myriad trans-genre collaborations and one-off project records he's turned out lately have effectively turned the concept of a typical Elvis Costello album into a metaphysically nonsensical idea. Even his trumpeted "return to rock" with 2002's When I Was Cruel seemed like a deliberate, almost academic undertaking, rather than a true relapse to the era when he just made records, with songs on them, for their own sake, because that's what Elvises did.

And now – released simultaneously with, but totally irrelevant to, his "classical album" Il Sogno – we have ‘Costello Does Roots Rock.’ If you can’t help but find it incongruous or disingenuous for the original geeky post-punker to be trying his hand at slow-cooked backwoods country and blues stylings, remember that Costello has always made his love for American roots music readily manifest in his cover tunes and choice of collaborators (George Jones, Allen Toussaint, the Fairfield Four, and so on). Although he’s done work in a similar vein on his own records – most notably the country covers album Almost Blue (1982), the largely acoustic King of America (1986), and especially 1995’s Kojak Variety, a deeply idiosyncratic (and unfairly maligned) set of primarily R&B covers – he’s never made an album that laid it all out so clearly.

“Roots music” is, of course, a hopelessly vague catch-all phrase that encompasses country, blues, gospel, soul, folk, and several others, including rock’n’roll. Although he makes liberal use of each of these styles, Costello never plays the purist. He lets them intermingle and injects them with his own recognizable brand of sophisticated songcraft. The Impostors, meanwhile, demonstrate mastery and comfort in these idioms, keeping things loose, but never sloppy. “The result is no mere genre experiment, but a cohesive and deftly executed batch of songs that should be considered on their own terms”

On that score, the weakest cut here is also the first, a clunky, Cruel-esque self-fulfilling prophecy named “Button My Lip” that for all its spirited bluesy hamfisting is not quite interesting enough to accommodate its lack of chord structure, minimalist melody and needless Bernstein quoting. Things pick up with the sublime “Country Darkness,” an enigmatic allegory that coasts on an ineffably soulful gospel-derived groove. The phantasmagorical travelogue “Bedlam” rides along on a funky blues riff; the rancorous “Needle Time” swerves on a dime from propulsive country rock to a gritty downtempo shuffle. Even on the ballads – “Nothing Clings Like Ivy,” beautifully harmonized by Emmylou Harris – Davey Faragher’s gloriously in-pocket bass playing provides an vital springboard and rhythmic anchor.

Lyrically, the residue of the discarded narrative – in its formative stages, this was intended as a concept album chronicling the loves and lusts of the titular character, but the storyline was scrapped along the way – makes this a collection of point-of-view relationship songs and character sketches. Though missing referents render some lines inscrutable, and the profusion of religious imagery is a bit perplexing, most of the lyrics still pack an emotional punch while leaving room for some trademark Costellian barbs ("Women would slap you, if you knew any").

Elvis Costello has presented so many faces as a songwriter and a performer that it’s meaningless to describe any one of them as exclusively characteristic or authentic. That said, it’s been ages since he’s sounded this self-assured, or this much at home.

By K. Ross Hoffman

Other Reviews of Elvis Costello

When I was Cruel


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