The Delivery Man
What transformed Elvis Costello, who once possessed a bilious songwriting style and an acidic sneer of a voice, into a caricature of pompous, “literate” rock? Was it the reissues of mediocre records like Kojak Variety, the 100th breathless review of his work from Greil Marcus, the high-culture collaborations with the Mingus Orchestra, or, perhaps, a concert at Lincoln Center devoted to his oeuvre?
Costello’s new album, The Delivery Man, his first with the backup band the Imposters since 2002 and his debut with the country label Lost Highway, doesn’t help in pinpointing the moment Costello veered into self-parody, but it does catalogue nearly everything that’s become impossible to take about him: the overly dense, nonsensical wordplay of “Country Darkness,” the exhausted songwriting subjects (the false messiahs of “Delivery Man”), and the cartoonish warbles of “Button My Lip.”
The Delivery Man was inspired by Johnny Cash, according to Costello, but it’s hard to see how the plainspokenness of the late country singer has anything to do with his preening sensibility. In interviews, Costello conflates criticism of his varied directions with a stifling of artistic ambition. But if he has every right to experiment with classical, country, and everything in between, his audience is just as free to reject his smothering of those genres with the incessant wordplay of an undergrad paging through a thesaurus.