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Review of The Delivery Man and Il Sogno
NZ Herald, 2004-10-31
Russell Baillie

Elvis Costello offers a transatlantic personality split


He remains, at age 50, one of rock's better-known four-eyes. Though his output suggests we should add "six ears" or "two brains" to the opto-insult. Not counting compilations, some two dozen albums now bear his name since 1977's My Aim is True.

As his remaining faithful know all too well, for the past 15 or so years there have been two types of Costello: rockElvis and artElvis.

In the past decade there've been solid rock sets harking back to his beginnings, such as When I Was Cruel and Useless Beauty. There've also been his excursions into arts festival fare, with collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet (The Juliette Letters) or his work with the Charles Mingus Orchestra, or his album of songs for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Van Otter.

Between the two poles came Painted From Memory, his glorious collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which proved (with apologies to the late Ray Charles) that genius loves company. Unfortunately those other artElvis offerings were ones to play, pretend to be interested in and file like that really important novel you'll never finish.

Maybe the two Elvi could also be classified as AmeriElvis and EuroElvis. It's not such a silly notion considering the Englishman now lives in New York with his American wife, jazz pianist-singer Diana Krall. Their marriage improved her last album, this year's The Girl in the Other Room, which featured some co-writes but didn't do much for his - last year's tepid if elegant North.

But the transatlantic personality split fits this year's models. Here's one ramshackle album recorded in Mississippi with a band that, but for one member, is his old backing band, the Attractions. The other is Il Sogno, a score commissioned by the Italian dance company Aterballetto for their adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. Yes, Puck art, let's dance.

Costello relished the chance to induce a skinny Bottom into a pirouette. Funnily enough, among the interlocking themes, stylistic variation and general grab-bag he does conclude that, yes, jazz is for fairies.

While you could hurl a few Gerswhin comparisons its way, it does play like a soundtrack to a film of rather more earthly delights than the story that the dance company is trying to interpret. It's a diverting quasi-classical hodge-podge that won't be the most boring thing in the inevitable EuroElvis box set.

So it's a good thing that The Delivery Man is so robust, raw and rockin'. It's the grittiest and most focused of his latter period rock sets but it doesn't play it dumb either. There's something vaguely Tom Waitsian going on in the songs, which come with an air of southern gothic and recurring characters seemingly tearing each other apart.

Its 13 tracks start off with a wiry rock tune (Button my Lip), then a ballad (Country Darkness) then repeat the pattern through to The Scarlet Tide (one of three tracks to feature Emmylou Harris, originally recorded for the Cold Mountain soundtrack). While those pendulum swings might seem a bit clever for its own good, The Delivery Man keeps the interest up with its energy and tunes. That's whether it's offering the twang and grit of the Lucinda Williams duet There's A Story in Your Voice, the swamp-rock of Bedlam or the Harris-assisted quivering grace of Nothing Clings Like Ivy.

Il Sogno may be necessarily away with the fairies but The Delivery Man shows Costello's over-achieving urge hasn't dampened his peculiar rock spirit. Its sense of abandon makes the album AmeriElvis' comeback special.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters: The Delivery Man
(Herald rating: * * * * )
Label: Lost Highway

Elvis Costello, London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas: Il Songo
(Herald rating: * * )
Label: Deutsche Grammophon