Mention the words "concept album" to most people and they will recoil in horror. Thick As A Brick, Tommy, The Wall and more recently Greendale have created mixed feelings for this particular use of the medium. Now, believe it or not, Elvis Costello's latest album The Delivery Man — his twenty-first studio outing to date — delves into the risky realms of the concept album and joins an illustrious (or otherwise) club.
It is something that you would hardly have thought Costello would attempt, despite his dabblings into classical music, his work with Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney and last year's album of jazz-tinged ballads, North. But why not? He has done just about everything else so it makes sense that he would extend himself as a songwriter.
In The Delivery Man, while some of the songs are thematically linked Costello really sits on the fence. If reaction is good and the fancy takes him he might release them in another form (as Greendale was). If not, he hasn't lost anything. In fact, you might not even notice there is a concept at work here unless you pay close attention to some of the lyrics.
The narrative concerns the relationship between a delivery man, Abel, and three women and it reeks of a Southern Gothic influence — maybe even Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire. Yet the songs involved stand separately and the 'concept' is really only a framework in which they hang — and it might have helped Costello to complete the project.
The concept, however, is largely a device and one that doesn't interfere with the music here at all. Frankly, I prefer Costello when he is in rock 'n' roll mode and when he is backed by the Imposters (formerly The Attractions) — so this is a welcome return to what he does best. The combination here is dynamite and there are few additions to the basic ensemble. Less definitely is more in this case. Costello has always shown the ability to pen an interesting lyric and attach it to a catchy hook and here they are in abundance.
Recorded in Oxford, Mississippi earlier this year, with producer Dennis Herring, The Delivery Man not only returns Costello to rock (with country, blues and soul thrown in) but it also contains his own versions of two of the greatest songs that he has written for others, as well as a splendid tribute to a New Orleans legend. It is often raucous, occasionally raw, always full of energy and stands as one of Costello's best albums of the past decade. In the liner notes, he credits legendary songwriter Dan Penn as "leading light" — a marvellous acknowledgement and a fine influence to cite.
"Either Side of The Same Town," written with Jerry Ragavoy for the Howard Tate comeback album of a few years ago, and "The Judgment," written with Cait O'Riordan and recorded by Solomon Burke, are both stunning songs. If you ever doubted that Costello was right up there with the best contemporary writers then these two gems should put the argument to rest. "Monkey To Man" — an "answer song" to New Orleans legend Dave Bartholomew's "The Monkey" (but fifty years on) reprises a message that is as relevant now as when the original was written.
Those three songs alone would place The Delivery Man into a shortlist of best albums of the year so far but there are many more songs that add to the substance. "The Scarlet Tide" was co-written with T Bone Burnett (former Coward Brother) and appeared on the soundtrack of Cold Mountain — its inclusion here is an unexpected bonus. Lucinda Williams lends passionate and idiosyncratic vocal support on the bluesy "There's A Story In Your Voice," while Emmylou Harris adorns one of Costello's best ballads, "Heart Shaped Bruise." "Button My Lip" and "Needle Time" bounce along like classic Costello songs from another era.
All in all, Elvis delivers.