First British pop star Joe Jackson did a so-so LP of 1940s jazz. Then Debbie Harry, another pop star, did an occasionally brilliant LP of R&B-funk. Now comes Costello with a 12-song collection of country music. Like Jackson, Costello sticks with other people's songs.
Also like Jackson, Costello has a band that acquits itself well (keyboardist Steve Nieve deserves special mention). But unlike either Jackson or Harry, Costello is convincing more than half the time. Costello runs into trouble only when the material calls for despair and resignation: He just doesn't know how to whine.
As his six previous pop rock LPs have demonstrated, Costello is a man who is angry, not apologetic; seething with revenge, not wallowing in pity. Give this Englishman an ax and he'll grind it, not sink it into his own skull.
But most of the time, Almost Blue is, at least, engaging. Costello turns Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)" into a raucous bit of rockabilly and is as prickly as ever on the bristling "Honey Hush."
He's also genuinely tender on "I'm Your Toy" and "Sweet Dreams," and disarmingly without malice on the chilling "A Good Year for the Roses."
Thanks to Costello, Almost Blue is almost great.