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Review of The Delivery Man
Filter, 2004-10-01
Frederick L. Blumberg

The Delivery Man

Elvis Costello
The Delivery Man
Filter Grade: 90%
by Frederick L. Blumberg

Things ain’t what they useta be. Not even nostalgia. Time was, the hipnoscenti could dismiss Elvis Costello’s diverse musical development. They still reserve that right, but at the dear cost of inertia. Clichés are in the business of being tired; Elvis Costello is in the business of rousing music. He won’t stay an angry young man forever; so why should you?

In the liner notes to The Delivery Man, Costello credits legendary soulsmith Dan Penn as a “guiding light.” While Costello read the paper, parked in his pickup at the dark end of the street, Penn must have illuminated the want ads. Costello, always the musical roustabout, got a new job. This time, he’s a delivery man and his route is rootsy. The Delivery Man is soulful country rock. It’s neither affectedly homespun nor inauthentically slick. Just a thoroughly enjoyable southern session. As you would expect from a delivery man, the sound is reliable; as you would expect from Elvis Costello it repays relistening.

Greil Marcus called Elvis Costello Buddy Holly on acid. If so, to commence The Delivery Man, he can be found tripping at the junkyard. “Button My Lip” is a wailing whinge of jagged jazz that has a lot to say about shutting up. It provides a bluesy, ramshackle bridge from When I Was Cruel. When the second and best track “Country Darkness” eases in, the sound of the album evinces. And it’s as welcome as an old rocking chair. On “Country Darkness,” Penn’s influence is felt with its “Do Right Man, Do Right Woman” syncopated slow-burning slow-yearning church organ. Lucinda Williams sings like Keith Richards on “There’s a Story in Your Voice,” and that’s not a barb. She gives a ragged but right impression that their duet aspires to Exile on Main Street looseness. The performance is a pair of weathered jeans. So what if they were made to look that way. They fit.

Emmylou Harris’s harmonies make “Heart Shaped Bruise” and “Nothing Clings Like Ivy” seem like lost tracks from Gram Parsons’s Grievous Angel. “The Judgement” and “Either Side of the Same Town” are excellent soul ballads originally written for the comeback records of Solomon Burke and Howard Tate respectively. “The Name of This Thing is Not Love” deservedly dotes on a wonderful melody. And “Scarlet Tide” captures perfectly an elegiac Appalachian spirit.

Just because other artists don’t move among genres fluidly doesn’t mean that Costello’s agility is anything but genuine and genuinely amazing. To be a delivery man, to be an artist, to be a person, you need to be on the move. Willynilly. No; things just ain’t what they useta be.