Elvis Costello, National Ransom
Dodging categorization and commercialization like other artists clamor for it
Elvis Costello does not make albums for these times. As mainstream pop draws increasingly on cheerleading chants and advertising jingles for inspiration, the greatest songwriter to grow out of the punk/New Wave era embraces complex tunes and harmonies inspired by jazz and classical, ornate arrangements reliant on old acoustic instruments and garrulous lyrics crazy with arcane imagery, boasting byzantine rhyme schemes. A more hit-hungry artist would top-load their album with their most accessible cuts, but Costello sequences National Ransom's most immediate tracks midway through. None of them resemble the rest of the record or his most familiar songs: Abhorring stasis, Costello dodges categorization and commercialization like other artists clamor for it.
But for listeners with long attention spans (and if you've made it 30+ albums into Costello's career, you're among them), this ranks among his most rewarding offerings in years. Like 2009's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, National Ransom is produced by T-Bone Burnett, a master at replicating the sound of classic country. It boasts some of bluegrass's most celebrated minstrels — Mike Compton on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro and lap steel and Stuart Duncan on banjo and fiddle. But there's also keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas of the Attractions, avant-jazz guitarist Marc Ribot, legendary pianist Leon Russell, Nashville icon Vince Gill, and a hefty horn section. Where Sugarcane stuck to American styles and topics, Ransom drifts in and out of them to embrace somber Anglo folk ("Bullets for the New-Born King"), British Invasion rave-up ("The Spell That You Cast"), and beyond.
With Ribot on board and Costello turning his attention to dissolute, doomed protagonists, there's more than a whiff of Tom Waits and nasty Thunderbird wine in tracks like "Jimmie Standing in the Rain." Precipitation is one of the album's defining metaphors: It's both a cleansing blessing and a destructive curse, and the arrangements accordingly billow — thick and varied squalls of guitar and other stringed things. Eight or more musicians interlock on locomotive rhythms, and on cuts like "Five Small Words" where the sound is dense yet hooky, fans may be reminded of such prime Costello outings as Imperial Bedroom. Like Costello's early producer Nick Lowe, Burnett favors loose performances low on studio trickery: Pained songs like "Stations of the Cross" find Costello straining at the top of his register, revealing the impact of advancing years. As always, Costello doesn't make it easy on himself.
So it comes as a shock when seven tracks in, his voice drops to a deep, comfy croon for the smoky cabaret of "You Hung the Moon," the album's instant and most substantial knockout. The song is a jazzy, torchy lament, but Costello avoids singing of conventional lover's woes. Instead, he depicts soldiers returning from war, but they're not all there: Some return as ghosts, others as drunkards, tearful and damaged. Seeking guidance, Costello looks to the moon, that guardian of lonely hearts, but its guiding luminescence is extinguished, its gravitational force destroyed. "The shore is a parchment, the sea has no tide/Since he was taken from my side."
Whether chronicling economic havoc in the jagged, incisive title track or documenting romantic forfeiture in the forthright "I Lost You," National Ransom focuses on bereavement, but it does so with nuance that sustains multiple listens. Like that lunar glow, the angry young man of Costello's glory days has vanished. In his place is a much wiser and more eclectic fellow who mourns civility's loss as his artistry's sophistication grows. Difficult yet not disagreeable, he's the rare musical contrarian with the both the flexibility and the temerity to endure and endear.