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Review of The Delivery Man
National Post, 2004-09-17
- Greg Bonnell


Elvis Costello returns to trademark vocal sound for new disc The Delivery Man

Greg Bonnell
Canadian Press

September 17, 2004

TORONTO (CP) - Elvis Costello's newest work tells the tale of three women living in an isolated community and their relationship to the mysterious Abel, a delivery man with a somewhat dangerous past.

Vivian is a divorcee who masks her disappointment in life by giving others the impression she's having a wild time. She tortures the pious war widow Geraldine with tales of intimacy with Abel that may very well be fictitious. Geraldine is conflicted, harbouring an almost devotional feeling for the delivery man - but also a strong desire to shield her daughter Ivy from Vivian's seemingly reckless lifestyle.

Ivy, a young girl, is naturally curious about it all.

With Costello having woven such a rich narrative, and currently contracted to write two books for Simon & Schuster, it's easy to forget the new work in question is a rock 'n' roll record.

"It sounds sort of crazy when you describe it like this," conceded Costello during a recent round of interviews for The Delivery Man, due out Sept. 21.

"My feeling is you should fall in love with the songs first, then the story is secondary to that," he said. "I don't want people to feel like 'Oh, I don't understand the story, therefore I can't enjoy the record.' "

Not that Elvis Costello fans aren't accustomed to detailed storytelling.

His debut album, 1977's My Aim Is True, included the tale of a lost love named Alison whom the protagonist bumps into years later - recalling the relationship while adding "well I see you've got a husband now."

One of the great things about rock 'n' roll is that lyrics can mean different things to different people, Costello said - or ignored completely in favour of catchy melody and good beat.

"This is a good group of songs," he enthused of The Delivery Man, "whatever story is being told."

What's evident upon first listen is that the 50-year-old, London-born singer has lost none of his vocal intensity or passion. No small feat considering his punk origins and penchant for fitting a wealth of words into relatively tight spaces.

"This is probably some of the best recorded singing that I've done," said Costello, wearing his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, a dark suit, fedora and monkey cufflinks - perhaps a nod to the album's first single, Monkey to Man.

"The explosive aspect of the voice, which sometimes gets tamed down by studio environment, is really vivid on this record," he said. "It captures the way I actually sound, better than a lot of records that I've done."

On the opening number, Button My Lip, Costello emphatically sings of a crime about to be committed. Built on a heavy drum and bass groove, the song crescendoes to a cacophonous resolution.

The next track, Country Darkness, springs from that place in the U.S. South where "country and soul meet," as does the bulk of the album - which, fittingly, was recorded in Mississippi.

Duets with Lucinda Williams on the honky tonk foot-stomper There's a Story in Your Voice and with Emmylou Harris on Nothing Clings Like Ivy and two other tracks further serve to paint an aural portrait steeped in southern Americana.

Given the wealth of collaborations he's pursued - including ones with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet, and Canadian jazz darling Diana Krall (Costello's wife) - it's become increasingly difficult to characterize Costello as just one kind of musician.

In fact, his first full-length orchestral work, Il Sogno, will be released on the same day as The Delivery Man. Combining Debussy-like harmonies with jazz whimsy, Il Sogno was originally commissioned in 2000 for an Italian dance company's adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Simultaneous record releases certainly give the impression of a prolific composer, but Costello says the classical work was recorded two years ago. It was his recent performances at the Lincoln Center Festival that only now prompted its release.

Clearly, Costello has no interest in remaking his breakthrough records of the '70s, but fans of that sound will no doubt welcome the return on The Delivery Man to the vocal style that's defined his career.

For the record's predecessor, North, the singer purged his usual lyrical devices and songwriting mannerisms.

"They were not to everybody's taste, but I knew that when I wrote them," Costello said of the songs which he now freely admits chronicle his relationship with Krall.

But it was abandoning the Elvis-isms for that record that allowed them to flood back in a new and energetic way on The Delivery Man.

"Perhaps I wouldn't have done that unless I'd let myself let go of those things for a little while."

© The Canadian Press 2004


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