It takes more than appreciation to pull off a country song, and Elvis Costello proves that the hard way here.
His heart always has been in the right place — Costello credits George Jones as one of his biggest influences. But when Costello, once in the vanguard of the New Wave, turns his specs to this most American of music forms, the result rings false most of the time. What should sound sincere comes off as coy, and there's a tendency to wonder — from past experience — if Costello isn't putting us on.
Ironically, he fares better with the ballads, in general, than with the more rocking numbers. The raved-up "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" and slowed-down "Honey Hush" don't quite click.
And yet... and yet...
Costello doesn't take the easy out, by crooning shamelessly or trying to slavishly imitate country stylists, choosing to approach every song in his own way — aided and abetted by Billy Sherrill, perhaps the most cussed (for his use of string arrangements and vocal choruses that eventually became just too much) and discussed (for his unparalleled knack of matching performer and song and sending them to the top of the charts) of country producers.
And the instrumental contributions of the Attractions are superlative — especially on Gram Parson's "How Much I Lied" and "I'm Your Toy (Hot Burrito #1)," where their playing suits the material far better than Costello's singing does.
But with his straightforward performance on weepers like "Sweet Dreams," "A Good Year for the Roses" and "Brown to Blue," Costello neatly treads the tightrope over the pit of maudlin muck in which so many country artists founder.