Back in the late '70s and early '80s, Elvis Costello would plot his cosmic knowledge of music history into his own songs, as if they were booty for like-minded music geeks. These days, he wears his influences on his sleeve, whether they're classical, jazz, or country. (I mean, dude gets in character like Miles Davis, with a fashion sense that matches each stylistic whim.) He recently donned the hat of Depression-era Americana troubadour with a pair of back-to-back albums produced by fellow enthusiast T Bone Burnett — the same guy who helmed Costello's first foray into American roots, 1986's King of America.
National Ransom expands the acoustic canvas of last year's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane with both electric and eclectic instrumentation, getting support from the likes of Marc Ribot, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, and Leon Russell. Here, Costello mixes minor-key rags ("Jimmie Standing in the Rain"), skippy ditties ("A Slow Drag with Josephine"), country-tinged rock ("National Ransom," "Five Small Words"), and Sun-Records-via-new-wave gumbo (the propulsive deep track "The Spell That You Cast"), all with a novelist's sense of detail.
Like many of his new-century records, National Ransom is half awesome and half meh — at 16 tracks, it's a little too long, and ballads like "You Hung the Moon," though subversive and clever, accentuate his increasingly overbearing vocal tics. Still, Costello appears to be back on the Coherent Melody bandwagon (his long-winded, hyper-intelligent melodic sense is in short supply), and he remains, from time to time, downright transfixing. National Ransom isn't the midlife masterpiece that obsessives have been pining for, but its finer points are worth seeking out, in all their sepia-tinted glory.