Review Summary: Elvis returns to the sound of his biggest triumph, spinning stories of Americana.
Elvis Costello has spent his career as a musical vagabond, testing his hand in every genre that gained his attention for a period of time. From his early years leading the raucous Attractions through punk-infused new wave, to the band's later albums making complex and classical pop music, to his forays into blue-eyed soul, country, piano torch songs, tin-pan alley pop, and a classical music collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, there is little Elvis has not done, and even less he is not willing to attempt. The man's knowledge of music is breathtaking, his mind containing hidden facts about the minutia of long forgotten artists. The man from England is in love with music, especially the traditional Americana.
Elvis first stepped into the world of country music with Almost Blue, a collection of country covers released during the height of his career. It was written off as an experiment, the young man trying something new to prove his artistic worth. People did not realize his true love of the music. In 1986, going through personal and professional turmoil, Elvis gravitated to Americana music to ease his torture. Stripping himself of the Attractions, his wife, and even his adopted name, he collected his songs and set out to record his defining statement as an artist. Teaming with producer T-Bone Burnett, Costello and a slew of the most acclaimed musicians in the world, including members of Elvis Presley's original band, recorded King Of America.
The album, a collection of plaintive acoustic ballads and a few upbeat country rockers, revealed in Costello a songwriter striving for recognition. Without the clamor of the Attractions creating a wall of noise behind him, he was able to show that there was more to his craft than mere anger and wordplay. The album, while not commercially successful, would prove to be his breakthrough as a respected songwriter, establishing him as an artist above the pale of mere pop music.
Twenty three years later, Costello has returned to roots music. Coupling once again with Burnett, the two have fashioned a stylistic sequel to King Of America. Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane is not such a bold statement, because there are no more bold statements left for Elvis to make. The album is a labor of love, a group of musicians playing music for the simple pleasure of playing music.
The album is a coherent piece sonically, but has little else holding it together. "Sulphur to Sugarcane" and "The Crooked Line" were co-written with Burnett, the pair once known as The Coward Brothers. Country legend Loretta Lynn supplies parts of "I Felt The Chill". "Complicated Shadows" and "Hidden Shame" were originally written years ago for Johnny Cash, while a four song suite in the middle of the album began life as pieces of a musical based on the life of Hans Christian Anderson. That anything can bring these songs together is a miracle. That the only way to know this history is through liner notes is a testament to the abilities of all involved.
"Down Among The Wine And Spirits" opens the album with strummed acoustics sitting under a weeping steel guitar. The sound of rustic America is embodied in the music, as the air of Nashville seeps into the recording. The album, recorded in just three days, feels as loose and spontaneous as the time would indicate. The songs are structured, and played with a steady hand, but have the freshness of an improvisation. In the best moments, the sheer delight Elvis has in creating this music can be heard in his voice, betraying the weary and beaten tone he attempts.
"I Felt The Chill" and "I Dreamed Of My Old Lover" are strong slices of country, using the simplicity of the music as a blanket to lay a mournful melody over. Both songs are instantly familiar, sounding like lost outtakes from the King Of America sessions. They are terrific examples of Costello's gifts as a songwriter, and make worthy additions to his canon. "My All Time Doll" is the most classic Costello song, the staccato acoustic strumming recalling his early work with the Attractions. The addition of strings and an accordion coloring the background do little to alter the atmosphere. If he plugged in his guitar, the song would be a perfect compliment for his current band, the Imposters.
"Hidden Shame" is the most traditional bluegrass piece on the album, an up-tempo stomper that pauses long enough for Costello to harmonize a strong chorus over the barn dancing beat. "She Was No Good" is a sly trick of writing, utilizing a descending chord progression in the chorus to make Costello's ascending vocal line sound even more ethereal. Such tricks are lost on lesser writers.
Emmylou Harris is an always welcome addition to "The Crooked Line", but not everything offered up works as well. "Complicated Shadows" is rearranged to fit the players, but gains nothing to make it a better song than the forgettable mess it was in its original state. "How Deep Is The Red" and "Red Cotton" are pleasant songs, but utterly forgettable. "Changing Partners" is a cover of an old waltz, and seems out of place among the more spirited material. The worst offended, however, is "Sulphur to Sugarcane", an overlong travelogue that recounts the story of a slimy politician with all of the slime, and nothing of a song surrounding it.
Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane revisits the sound and feeling of Elvis' best moment as a songwriter, but after so many years, it was destined to fail. It could not live up to the legend of King Of America, and nothing was done to avoid the comparison. The album, taken on its own, is an enjoyable set of songs that display Elvis' comfort working outside of what is expected of him. The songs are well written, well performed, and allow Costello to reflect on where he has been over the last two decades. The only problem with doing so is that it reminds him, and us, of how high the bar was set.