In writing advance posts for my Elvis Costello Weekends, I recently revisited Almost Blue, his 1981 album of country covers.
It was five years before he would infuse those country influences into his own songs on King of America. It was 18 years after that that he explored country blues on The Delivery Man. And four years later he paired up with rootsy producer T Bone Burnett for the country/bluegrass album Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.
Costello doesn’t like to repeat himself. If you want an inkling of what to expect from him next, the very last place you should start is whatever it is he just finished.
How strange, then, that his new album, National Ransom, is essentially a continuation of the style he explored on Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. He has even kept the same band on — The Sugarcanes — while adding members of his more rocking accompaniment, The Imposters.
Even the album art is similar, once again provided by American cartoonist Tony Millionaire.
But while National Ransom finds Costello in the rare position of repeating himself, he certainly isn’t treading water. On the contrary, this album is markedly superior to its predecessor and, in fact, I’m tempted to call it his strongest work since King of America.
That is high praise indeed, considering his output since then, but after spending a lot of time with this album and discovering its riches, I feel it’s warranted.
Where Sugarcane felt like a collection of odds and ends, National Ransom feels like a cohesive album. And while it skips between styles — a little jazz, a little Tin Pan Alley, a little bluegrass, a little traditional country — all of those styles are distinctly American. The album feels like a travelogue through a century of American history, both musical and political.
The title track, and indeed the album as a whole, was inspired by the devastating effects on America of corporate greed and the corruption of financial institutions. Each song on the album has a subtitle placing it in time and space… this track says simply “1929 to the Present Day.”
Boiling them down by the bushel and the score
Pull out your thumb and count what’s left of your fist
There’s a wolf at the window with a ravening maw
They’re running wild
Just like some childish tantrum
Meanwhile we’re working every day
Paying off the National Ransom
Musically, that opening track is the most generic song on the album. It’s a straight-forward rocker that would have fit in on When I Was Cruel or Momofuku. It’s a deceptive beginning for an album that is anything but generic.
That becomes clear on the second track, ‘Jimmie Standing in the Rain.’ This is my early favorite, a jazzy stroll featuring a syncopated acoustic guitar, a meandering horn and some of Costello’s best singing in years. This song is a cousin to Spike‘s wonderful ‘God’s Comic.’
Clocking in at more than an hour, National Ransom is too long for its own good. Still, I find it hard to pinpoint which tracks I would have left on the cutting room floor. I’d cut ‘The Spell That You Cast,’ a 60s-style romp, but after that I’m at a loss. Even the “throwaway” tracks here are special.
Take ‘I Lost You,’ a simple country jam that would have been right at home at last week’s CMA Awards. Its sweet melody and traditional instrumentation form a perfect counter-balance to the album’s more ambitious tracks. Take it away and the whole suite suffers.
National Ransom is not just long, but wordy in that unique Costello way. In his early work, he would slice and dice the English language into brainy confetti. These days he’s just as inscrutable but more literary. Sometimes it feels as if he’s writing these songs with a thesaurus at his side.
Take these lines from the dramatic, byzantine ‘Stations of the Cross’:
Past the Cape of Bad Conscience
Into the Gulf of the Cauldron
Roars over the coastline to batter and flatten
Exposing the roots like the dyed hair of a slattern
Somehow I feel he could have said whatever it is he’s saying there in half as many words.
But despite those overreaching flourishes, he’s still a peerless lyricist. I love these lines from the country torch song ‘That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving’:
She’s just a friend
I tried to comfort and defend
I gave her what you might call advice
But nothing like that comes without a price
There’s no use in shedding any tears
He’s no good to you the way he is
He’s beyond forgiving and believing
Half of his heart is filled with pain
That’s sweet as a lick of sugarcane
But that’s not the part of him you’re leaving
Love is a many splintered thing
That only cuts roses and ribbons that cling
But that’s not the part of him you’re leaving
“Love is a many splintered thing” — that’s the Costello genius at work.
So, you’re probably thinking “It’s long and wordy… sounds like a lot of fun.” Well, I can’t argue with that. National Ransom is not an easy listen, but it’s a rewarding one, one that demands time and attention. It took me several listens to the full album to pick its locks and root out its secrets.
Like the gentle acoustic majesty of ‘Bullets for the Newborn King;’ or the grand grungy piano ballad ‘Church Underground,’ which sounds like Costello’s version of something on Highway 61 Revisited; or ‘You Hung the Moon,’ a saloon weeper Sinatra could have recorded for Only the Lonely.
And I don’t think I’m even halfway there.
But I know already that this is a resonant work of art by one of our greatest songwriters. This album will enhance Costello’s reputation, and at this point in a career as long and successful as his, that’s saying something.
In the wonderfully unexpected ‘A Voice in the Dark,’ the album’s closing track, Costello channels an old vaudevillian in one of his most spirited performances in decades. I find this passage quite special:
Long of hair and loose of tooth
There’ll be pirouettes and startling handstands
And who but acrobats know how to tell the truth?
When all is said and then redundant
They gallivant in peg-leg pants
I’ll be your servant
You’ll be my pal
And I’ll be faithful, you know I shall
There’s no fool like an old fool
Who blames it all upon his youth
When times are tough and you find you’re down
Without a star to wish upon
Just listen for…
A Voice In The Dark
I’m not sure what Costello is singing about (I rarely am) but these words to me are about himself and his relationship with his fans. He’s our acrobat, thrilling us for over 30 years on more than 30 albums, doing pirouettes and handstands as only he can.
National Ransom is proof that voice in the dark is still as strong as ever.