In 1954, a young Elvis Presley appeared on The Grand Ole Opry. He was advised to go back to his former occupation, truck driving. According to those who were with him, Presley cried all the way back to Memphis.
It's interesting to keep this sordid incident in mind when listening to Elvis Costello's new album, Almost Blue (Columbia). While the original Elvis was obviously misunderstood by the gentlemen farmers who ran the Opry back a quarter century ago, it's probable that were the new, mutant Elvis to appear on the Opry stage singing any of those numbers from Almost Blue, he would be advised to keep on singing country. Never mind that rock stuff.
Almost Blue, quite simply, is a collection of 12 excellent country songs, none by Elvis Preeley. Elvis does Merle Haggard, Don Gibson, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Charlie Rich, Billy Sherrill, George Jones, and Jim Chesthut. If you think the idea of Elvis singing all there good country songs is bizarre, or just a joke, think again. Almost Blue is the best country album of the year.
Costello needs no instruction, except around these parochial parts, and this album is going to shock alot of people who have never listened to the man and who have an image of some sort of punk rocker.
Costello, like Lennon-McCartney, has taken elements of many types of American music — country, rock, Stax/Motown pop, even Broadway show tunes, and fused than into a style of startling power.
He has, in fact, done some country before. There's "Stranger in the House" and "Radio Sweetheart" from Taking Liberties, "Motel Matches," from Get Happy!!, and "Different Finger" from last year's Trust. All these were Costello originals, but even his rock songs are built like country music, full of twisted cliches and homely allusions.
Almost Blue kicks off with a frantic version of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)." The song is done in a sort of revved-up rockabilly style and is most likely placed first so as not to shock long-time Costello fans. The second number, however, is something different. Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams" is a drowsy country waltz done with strings, backing choir and pedal steel guitar. Elvis croons it, no other word appropriate, but his singing is warm, full-bodied, and emotional - he's a country singer.
"Success," the next song, is a bouncy number with busy piano that would put Floyd Cramer to shame. Originally done by Loretta Lynn, it's a song about how succese can make a failure of a love, and Elvis singe it perfectly. "I'm Your Toy" incorporates part of the Flying Burrito Brothers".Hot Burrito No. 1" and is atypically laid-back, a compromise between gut-bucket and urban California country. "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" is a Merle Haggard song. "Brown to Blue" contains the great lines "You changed your name from Brown to Jones / And mine from Brown to blue."
Side two opens with "A Good Year for the Roses," complete with lush backup chorus and strings. Like all of the more conventional country weepers here, "Roses" is done with real style and taste. Sure, it's emotional, but producer Billy Sherrill, who has been responsible for covering such fine artists as Charlie Rich with mush, never overwhelm Elvis with glutinous studio effects. Much better than Kenny Rogers, as if I had to tell you.
Side two winds down with another rockabilly knockout, "Honey Hush." The last song is the best on Almost Blue. Called "How Much I Lied," it opens with an unguent piano figure and is completely unclassifiable.