Elvis Costello is a genius. Almost Blue is, well, almost perfect. On his first six albums Costello has showed everything he's got. He's a brilliant lyricist, a talented musician, and a near-flawless arranger of music. While so many popular artists follow trends or well-worn paths to maintain their popularity, Costello walks his own way. Like the finest in any genre, he is not afraid to attempt anything new. The fact that he changes his style so drastically on Almost Blue and comes up with such a beautiful album is yet another tribute to his genius.
Almost Blue is a country album; it is not Elvis Costello doing his own mock-country songs. It is a collection of classic C & W oldies written by the likes of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Gram Parsons, and performed in Costello's unique way. It is almost embarrassing for it to take an Englishman to remind us how beautiful distinctly American music can be.
And Almost Blue is stunningly beautiful. Sure, at first it's a little strange to hear that now-familiar Cockney growl on "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," but this guy is really serious. And who said he couldn't sing? This album is simply one of the strongest vocal performances in popular music of the last decade.
The songs range from slow, gorgeous ballads like George Jones's "A Good Year For The Roses," to romantic barroom classics like "Brown to Blue" and "Tonight the Bottle." In addition, I'd swear it was a different Elvis, or at the very least Joe Ely, singing the album's two rockabilly cuts, the raucous "Honey Hush" and Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me."
The finest songs, though, are the priceless renditions of the two Gram Parsons songs, "I'm Your Toy" and "How Much I Lied," the final song. Elvis says Parsons was a major influence on him and if anyone has ever demonstrated the genius of the former Byrd, it is Costello. Steve Nieve on piano for the Attractions, shines on the whole album, but the piano on "How Much I Lied" rivals the best work of any rock pianist for sheer elegance. The adaptation of Bruce and Pete Thomas, on drums and bass, to the country format is also admirable.
But this is Costello's album. Versatility is a trait that is becoming increasingly rare in popular music, and experimentation with this versatility even rarer. During the era of the staid pop formula, Elvis Costello sings, "success has made a failure of our home." In a surprisingly soft-spoken way he has made one of the most artistically successful albums in this age of failure.