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Review of The Delivery Man and Il Sogno
Winnipeg Sun, 2004-09-21
- Mary Dickie


Tue, September 21, 2004

Special Deliveries

Two new releases take Elvis Costello in different directions

North, south, east, west, ballads, blues, ballet -- Elvis Costello has been busy over the past year. This month, the singer-songwriter-composer-iconoclast will release two very different albums. The Delivery Man, a semi-conceptual rock album with Imposters, is out today, while Il Sogno, a score for a ballet inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, comes out Sept. 28.

These works come barely a year after Costello's last major opus, the song cycle North, about falling in love with pianist Diana Krall, now his wife.

In addition, over the past year Costello made a appearance in the Cole Porter film biography De-Lovely singing Let's Misbehave; was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and was nominated for an Oscar for The Scarlet Tide, a song from Cold Mountain. It's a remarkably varied outpouring -- and would be even if the new albums weren't both so dazzling.

After the moody, '50s-style pop ballads of North, which topped Billboard's jazz charts for five weeks, The Delivery Man literally pulls a real 180. Costello went south to record it in Mississippi, using John McFee's pedal steel -- for the first time since Almost Blue -- a rawer, rougher sound and vocal contributions from Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.

The album's 13 songs -- which include The Scarlet Tide and The Judgement, originally written for Solomon Burke, as well as hurtin' country songs like Heart-Shaped Bruise and Country Darkness, the soul stirrer Either Side of the Same Town and the raucous single Monkey to Man -- draw from country, blues and Memphis soul and hold together, more or less, in a kind of southern gothic storyline.

On the surface, the gorgeous Il Sogno is as different as can be -- pristine, orchestral and instrumental, and recorded in London. But on closer listen it reveals itself as a rich, playful and accessible mix of its composer's musical interests -- classical, big band jazz, soul, old Broadway musicals, folk dances, even circus music.

The remarkable thing is the way one vibrant musical brain can juggle so many different styles without getting overwhelmed.

"These two albums did overlap," Costello admits. "I wrote the story outline of The Delivery Man about five years ago, as well as a couple of songs. Then I got the commission to write Il Sogno, which was unprecedented -- having the opportunity to respond to not only the Shakespearean narrative but to the dances. I had to learn all these things, and hope that my instincts about orchestral writing were correct.

"And the day that I started recording Il Sogno, I was rehearsing the Imposters to go out on the When I Was Cruel tour. So in the daytime it was the orchestra, and in the nighttime it was rock 'n' roll. Luckily, I can keep the two methodologies in my head at the same time, as well as my appreciation for different types of music."

When he was ready to record The Delivery Man, Costello took his Imposters -- keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Kerragher -- to Sweet Tea studio in Oxford, Miss., to work with Tupelo native Dennis Herring.

"I had a strong feeling that I wanted to record my next album in the South, I think because the response of the audience there seems less governed by their knowledge of my past," he explains. "Pete and Davey had played on a Buddy Guy record called Sweet Tea, which had turned me on to the studio. So we set up in Oxford, played the songs in a club as soon as we learned them, went into the studio and cut the record in a matter of days.

"The trap you can fall into by making music in the South is to feel that's giving some sort of authenticity to your work," he adds. "But I think you can hear that's not really what we're doing. Even when we take a song form as a model, we always subvert it."

The Delivery Man is, loosely, the story of a shadowy figure named Abel who's a source of fascination, love and danger for three women -- his wife Vivien, her friend Geraldine and Geraldine's daughter Ivy. Only seven of the 13 tracks are specifically about them, but the others kind of fit in thematically -- and anyway, Costello likes things to stay open-ended.

"I decided that I wouldn't tell a final version of the story on this record," he explains. "I wanted to leave some threads trailing. I didn't feel its strength was having a beginning, middle and end so much as moments that hung off the narrative in the title song. And the related songs are the points of view, the emotional experiences of the other characters.

"But I realized that if I made it all about these characters, it'd be a claustrophobic drama. And I'd just recorded North, a series of very emotional, very personal, completely honest songs that didn't admit the presence of the outside world -- they were concentrated totally on an emotional transformation. I realized that telling another story that was sealed off from the world wouldn't be realistic. So the world comes in to this one."

Copyright © 2004, CANOE, a division of Netgraphe Inc.All rights reserved.


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