Rock and roll has always had an intimate yet uneasy relationship with country music. Although rock has drawn on country for forms and stylistic devices, rock performers have never really been comfortable with the lyrical conventions of country. The more traditional values and sometimes overwrought sentiment of country and western music have usually been treated as something of a joke by rock musicians. Much of the country-style music recorded by rock musicians (and nearly every major rocker has recorded at least one country-flavored song) has been given a somewhat tongue-in-cheek treatment.
Elvis Costello has written more than his share of country songs in the last few years. Like the rest of his music, Costello's country songs have been marked by the sarcasm and bitter wit that are his stock in trade. However, the irony of these songs is all the greater because of the tension between the cutting nastiness of Costello's persona and the sometimes saccharine nature of the form. Although some of
Costello's country songs stand with his best work (especially "Stranger in the House" and the superb "Radio Sweetheart") it has sometimes been difficult to tell how seriously Elvis takes country and western.
On Almost Blue, Costello plays it straight for the most part. Recorded in Nashville, with producer Billy Sherrill replacing Nick Lowe, Almost Blue is a collection of pure country songs (none of them originals), pedal steel guitars, strings and all. Although Costello's furious voice sometimes sounds a little silly next to the near muzak backing vocals of "Nashville Edition," Almost Blue is a sincere record, a basically straightforward homage to country music.
Costello's admiring emulation of his country heroes (among them Hank Williams, George Jones and Gram Parsons) contrasts with the cynical stance Elvis has taken in the past. Nick Lowe's production gave Costello's outstanding band, the Attractions, a kaleidescopic, Phil Spector-style sound that suited them well. On Almost Blue, the bass fills, cascading organ lines and the spectacular flourishes of drummer Pete Thomas have been abandoned for a simple but polished sound. The furious ensemble playing that was the musical equivalent of Costello's barrage of puns and ironic twists has been dropped to fit a more elegant, less frenzied style of music. The extremely stylized, almost baroque, playing of the Attractions is not really suited to C+W and the arrangements seem to be an uncomfortable restriction on the band. Except for Doobie Brother John McFee, who contributes some accomplished lead and pedal steel parts, the musicians seem ill at ease with the simple melodicism of the ballads.
Almost Blue does have its more rocking moments, especially Hank Williams's rockabilly "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)." Other standouts are the charmingly vicious "Honey Hush" ("Come on into this house, stop that yakkety-yak/You're making me nervous and I'm holding a baseball bat"), two songs by Gram Parsons (a lovely melody, "How Much I lied" and the frankly sexual "I'm Your Toy") and Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down."
Two songs are so sentimental that they might be targets for Costello's parody. Billy Sherrill's "Too Far Gone" is an incredibly self-pitying vision of romance and Costello seems to sing it with a knowing wink. "Brown to Blue" sounds as if it ought to be tongue in cheek because of the weeping guitar line and the downright silly lyrics:
The judge pronounced the words
the way you wanted him to do
He changed your name from Brown to Jones
and mine from Brown to Blue
Almost Blue grows on the listener over repeated hearings, but although the musicianship (including Elvis' spectacular voice) is fine, some of the tunes eminently hummable and the entire album lovingly and skillfully produced, there is something lacking. The album is by no means a failure, but it seems a minor work when compared with Costello's other records.
Elvis is much more at home with his own material. His own songs (even the country tunes) are his sole property. Costello, however, does not really display the ability to take another writer's work and make it his own (although he did make excellent use of Bacharach and David's "I Don't Know What to Do with Myself" and Colton and Smith's wonderful "I Stand Accused").
The album also demonstrates that Costello seems better suited to faster, more rhythmic music. The power of Costello's voice and the breakneck pace of many of his best songs seem to suggest that he has at least as much in common with Sam and Dave as with George Jones. As Almost Blue demonstrates, Elvis Costello can do very good work in the country idiom, but his earlier albums indicate that he could make really excellent music if he made his next album in Motown.