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Review of Il Sogno and The Delivery Man
Being There, 2004-10-01
Russell Beartholomee and Brighid Mooney

Elvis Costello - Il Sogno Deutsche Grammophon

3 1/2 stars

Reviewed by Russell Bartholomee

When I heard Elvis Costello was releasing two albums on the same day – one a southern-tinged rocker (The Delivery Man) and the other a symphonic work – I was quite conflicted. Full disclosure: I don't usually like it when Elvis makes a non-rock record. I greatly prefer the fierce fury of This Year's Model or the pop perfection of Imperial Bedroom to Costello’s occasional excursions outside the realm of rock. While I appreciate his drive to explore other genres, the results have been mixed at best. Having been disappointed to varying degrees by the wildly uneven The Juliet Letters, the meandering Painted From Memory, the pretentious For the Stars, and the pretty-but-repetitive North, I was not looking forward to Elvis Costello’s debut as a classical composer.

I’m pleased to say that I was wrong about Il Sogno. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, the piece is a delight from start to finish. Originally commissioned as the score for an Italian ballet company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“il sogno” is Italian for “the dream”), Costello modified the music to stand alone. And while it may seem to be faint praise, this is easily the best classical venture by any member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (paging Sir Paul…).

Costello shows an impressive flair for classical composition. Clearly this is because he has listened to and absorbed elements from great composers that preceded and inspired him. And the evident influences are wide-ranging. In places, Il Sogno recalls the Americana of Copeland, the folk instrumentation of Bartok, and the hypnotic majesty of Ravel’s Bolero. It is not a strictly classical affair; there are also unmistakable elements of Mancini, Ellington and Gershwin, as well as hints of “On Broadway” in the magnificent “Oberon and Titania.” That is not to say that Il Sogno is merely derivative. Costello skillfully blends these disparate influences into a cohesive whole that pays homage without sounding like an imitation.

It's not a masterpiece, but it's much better than anyone could have reasonably expected. While challenging in spots, it avoids the harsh dissonance that plagues much modern classical music. Often achingly beautiful, it avoids syrupy sweetness. At its best, it approaches the strength of works by the composers mentioned above. At its worst, it has the quality of a fine film score—certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Il Sogno actually makes me hope that Costello will compose additional symphonic works. I still prefer him as a rock ‘n’ roller, but this is a very rewarding release. And even my mother will like it.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters - The Delivery Man Lost Highway

Four stars.

Reviewed by Brighid Mooney

Since its release, Elvis Costello's latest album, The Delivery Man, has been called many things: A roots record, country soul, and, most ubiquitously, a "return to form." But for an artist like Costello, the phrase "return to form" doesn't mean much. Even in his early, angry days, Costello sang live covers of Burt Bacharach tunes, bowed to the kings of R&B and put out an entire album of country covers. His willingness to experiment with genre and style has only increased since then, from collaborations with the likes of Bacharach and Paul McCartney to a classical album with the Brodsky Quartet. In between all of this eclecticism he has been consistently writing thoughtful, introspective songs about rejection, guilt and infidelity. What most critics seem to mean by "return to form" is that Costello is finally rocking again, like he's supposed to. But far be it for Elvis Costello to do anything that he's supposed to do. The Delivery Man, released on the same day as his first orchestral score (Il Sogno) and recorded at Oxford, Mississippi's Sweet Tea Studio, features both country and soul ballads, primal, chaotic rockers and retro rock and roll. Rather than a return to form, Costello breaks character with The Delivery Man by writing one of his least personal albums to date. In the past, Costello's albums have often been marked by a discernible contempt for humanity and disgust with the world while incorporating an equal measure of self-loathing and shame. On The Delivery Man, Costello largely leaves himself out of it, instead telling the story of Abel, the title character, and three women whose lives he affects when he passes through their southern town.

The album starts with the raucous and raving "Button My Lip," a vicious, desperate song replete with manic screams and wicked laughter. "Buttom My Lip" ends with Costello repeatedly proclaiming "I am the mighty and the magnificent," as we get a startling introduction to the mysterious and dangerous Abel. The other characters on The Delivery Man are given a voice as the album progresses, with Costello getting vocal assistance from both Lucinda Williams, who gives a spectacularly unhinged performance as Vivien in the countrified rocker "There's a Story In Your Voice," and Emmylou Harris, who accompanies Costello in the ballads "Nothing Clings Like Ivy" and "Heart Shaped Bruise" as well as the album's sparse, hushed closer "The Scarlet Tide." Interwoven with the story-telling songs are several that give us a glimpse into the world outside of the story. "Monkey To Man" is an answer song, fifty years later, to Dave Bartholomew's "The Monkey." “Needle Time" is Costello's bluesy sneer toward a whole handful of nameless adversaries. There's also "Bedlam," which stands out as one of the most frantic and straight-aiming songs Costello has ever written. Not quite as haphazard as the title suggests, "Bedlam" manages to run the course from Joseph and Mary to George W. Bush in a matter of minutes. Costello's point seems fairly clear as he sings about the man who was "bowing like an actor acknowledging applause, playing the crusader who was conquering the moors." "Bedlam" takes a panoramic view of religious war throughout history, highlighting the insanity of humanity since time began, and making the point that those horrible atrocities done in the name of God are not only confined to the history books or to faraway lands. "Though I seemed a long way from my home," Costello sings, "it really was no distance."

The Delivery Man doesn't always feel like a cohesive album, with Costello switching back and forth between up-tempo rock and slow-burning ballads, but somehow the songs all come together to create a bigger scope than simply the characters in his story. Instead, we get a broader view of fledgling mankind and the microcosmic world of Costello's characters snuggled within it. Rugged and raw, The Delivery Man is Elvis Costello's successful return to musical exploration and satisfying his own musical curiosities. Not that he ever really stopped. Here's hoping he never does.