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Review of The Delivery Man
Age, 2004-10-01
Michael Dwyer

CD REVIEW: The Delivery Man Elvis Costello and the Imposters (Lost Highway/ Universal) ****

Elvis Costello has a logical reason for mistrusting music criticism. It has to do with the reviewer's deadline for appreciating something designed to yield its charms over an indefinite period. This densely crafted/slow-release principle has long pertained to his records more than most. It's what makes Imperial Bedroom, say, a desert island disc rather than a snapshot of '82 pop. And it's partly why there's such a vast divergence of recorded opinions about his first quasi-classical album, The Juliet Letters, or his Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted From Memory. This mostly rowdy return to Nashville is another skidding left turn that winds up in the ditch on first hearing. Button My Lip is a ragged, single-chord bar boogie with Costello's raised voice at its most abrasive. Brief respite follows with Country Darkness, a loping piano waltz with sighing pedal steel, then it's onto a brash duet with Lucinda Williams, sounding much the worse for whisky and smokes. The title, There's a Story In Your Voice, gives the first clue of an emerging narrative, "a mystery you can solve", as Country Darkness hinted. The plot thickens with a rotating cast of characters in tiny print above certain lyrics - Abel, Vivien, Ivy, Geraldine . . . Like one of those 3-D eye puzzles, a random collection of rough-hewn country-rock songs warps into a cryptic map of small-town romantic tragedy. The intermittent reappearance of Emmylou (Geraldine) Harris offers another tantalising thread, as well as the album's most arresting moments. Her harmony is typically elegant and crucial on Nothing Clings Like Ivy, a magnificently crushed character sketch even by Costello's high standards. She has a more prominent role on Heart Shaped Bruise before a wonderful return on The Scarlet Tide, an epilogue for lone ukulele and two voices that opens with the pair giggling off-microphone, like kids doing a school play. A surprising co-writing credit for Costello's ex-wife, Cait O'Riordan, adds a deeper dimension to penultimate track The Judgement, suggesting the autobiographical element that was so obvious on his last album, North. Maybe The Delivery Man is the redneck rural alley-cat alter-ego of that album's sensitive urban high-rise sophisticate. And maybe the contemptuous Needle Time is about idiots who jump to such conclusions to meet a press deadline. Ask again tomorrow. -- Michael Dwyer