Elvis Costello's greatest quality is his unerring ability to shift sonic directions like he's changing from a thrift store overcoat to a Saville Row dinner jacket without compromising his artistic vision or his core creative philosophy. Whether blustering about with angry young New Wave angst above the din of the Attractions, crooning with serious musical intent accompanied by the Brodsky Quartet or Marian McPartland or duetting with Burt Bacharach or Allen Toussaint, Costello graces every extreme with brilliant lyrical twists, wry humor and an incisive understanding of the human condition, not to mention the inhuman consequences experienced by those that are blithely untroubled with his level of insight.
Amazingly, Costello has maintained a consistency over the past three decades that must be the envy of fellow stylistic chameleons like David Bowie and Neil Young, artists who have taken similar chances within their own unique constructs and who have suffered a much higher failure rate as a result.
Costello's latest, National Ransom, comes just two years after the Jenny Lewis-inspired racket on the patently excellent Momofuku and a year after the mesmerizing Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. On National Ransom, Costello returns to Starbucks' Hear Music label and reteams with veteran boardsman T Bone Burnett (who produced 1986's King of America as well as last year's Sugarcane) and packs the studio with his Imposters/Sugarcanes, not to mention a stellar guest list that includes Buddy Miller, Marc Ribot, Vince Gill and the inimitable Leon Russell.
The album lurches to life with the title track, a searing, careening song that wouldn't have been out of place on Imperial Bedroom but immediately takes a left turn with the Tin Pan Alley Jazz plink of "Jimmie Standing the Rain" and the smokey lope of "Stations of the Cross." The Country aspects of National Ransom, reprised from Sugarcane, are equally on display, particularly in the chugging reverb of "Five Small Words." But in typical fashion, Costello manages to bend the genre to his will rather than following formulaic convention. Even oddities like the bouncy Jazz Rag of "A Slow Drag with Josephine" and the Waits-meets-Sinatra balladry of "You Hung the Moon" seem strangely of a piece in the sonic quilt that Costello has sewn together on National Ransom, the latest quirky triumph in his storied catalog.