National Ransom is arguably Elvis Costello's most ambitious record in years, which is saying something for the prolific singer-songwriter who habitually genre-hops, tirelessly collaborates, and seemingly seeks out projects that will take him anywhere but back to the well. Joining Costello are producer and longtime collaborator T-Bone Burnett, recent Costello backing bands The Imposters and The Sugarcanes, and guests as noteworthy as Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Marc Ribot, and Leon Russell. Given the personnel involved, listeners might reasonably expect National Ransom to be where Momofuku and Secret, Profane & Sugarcane rendezvous — a split album of Imposters tracks right alongside Sugarcanes tunes — but familiar faces and comfortable surroundings haven't led to an attempt to recapture the sounds of recent recordings. Instead, this record is more about Costello taking what he already knows and moving in yet another direction with it.
"National Ransom" opens the record on a fitting musical and thematic note. This glowing barnburner, like the society addressed in its lyrics, runs "pell-mell and harum-scarum" and is as scathing as it is infectious. Pete Thomas's familiar pounding and Steve Nieve's inimitable Vox Continental are present, but the track also thrives on Marc Ribot's guitars, Stuart Duncan's electric violin, and Costello's sneering lead vocal harmonized with himself and Buddy Miller. The result is a hybrid sound unlike anything Costello has done before with these players. Costello and Burnett's mixing and matching of musicians and the resulting, often unlikely, interplay between their parts is a large part of this record's intrigue.
The title track also sets the thematic tone for National Ransom. Costello depicts a damaged society run amok with hucksters and the power-hungry, where "there's a wolf at the window with ravening maw." But while it's tempting to view the wounded, downtrodden, credulous, or simply out of place characters found in these songs as victims, Costello hints that there has been some degree of complicity in the "shakedown," as what was once valued has been compromised, surrendered, and lost. Costello describes the album as "songs for the bankrupt times."
The protagonist of the melancholy standout "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" travels between towns with a borrowed country-western act only to discover that "nobody wants to buy a counterfeited prairie lullaby in a colliery town." Jeff Taylor's plodding piano meshes beautifully with Duncan's fiddle, while Darrell Leonard's trumpet echoes Costello's plaintive vocals. Together these sounds create a sense of lament and isolation as Jimmie, soaking wet at a train station, finally recognizes the absurdity of being a "half-cut cowboy in polite society."
While listeners will instantly embrace up-tempo tracks like the lush and vibrant "I Lost You" and "Five Small Words," as well as the ripping and emphatic "The Spell That You Cast," Costello is at his best on numbers in the same vein as "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" — songs that are permitted to brood, pause, and move forward in their own time. On "Stations of the Cross," Costello's voice is pushed to the forefront for his finest vocal performance of the record. His powerful (yet controlled) delivery on lines like "He's buying his way into heaven I suppose" is quickly juxtaposed with some of the album's softest singing, which mingles perfectly with a steady drumbeat, piano, and Jerry Douglas's lap steel. "Church Underground," which tells the story of a struggling actress / singer searching for a means of redemption, pits Costello's biting delivery against building instrumentation. By the time the track culminates in the girl "rising up fast like all hell and all hallows," Costello's impassioned vocals are bolstered by an emotionally moving backdrop of sound, including a five-piece horn section.
On the record's tracklisting, Costello denotes an approximate setting (time and place) for each song, a couple of which are meaningfully precise while the majority playfully reference an era, a state of mind, or a more esoteric moment. The most rewarding of these song / setting correlations come in the form of period pieces that borrow the language and style of a bygone era. The farcical "A Slow Drag With Josephine" (Under The Napoleonic Code – 1921) finds Costello and Mike Compton harmonizing on lines such as "Adieu, my little ballyhoo" and "He tried to skeddle-daddle-do" set to acoustic guitar, banjo plucking, and lighthearted piano. Granting Costello the anachronism of being on a radio hat in 1931, "A Voice in the Dark" sounds exactly like the light and airy fare you imagine past generations listening to back when a radio sat in the living room instead of a television. From Costello's opening "Ba-ba-ba" croon to lines like "I'm flat as a sole / I'm happy as a clam," it's all in fun and perhaps a needed uplift to end a rather bleak record.
Costello is not without his missteps on National Ransom. "Dr. Watson, I Presume," despite tight backing and an intricate chorus harmony with Vince Gill, comes and goes without any memorable effect. It's a similar story on "Bullets for the New-Born King" and "All These Strangers." Both offer moments worth holding on to, but in their entirety, they remain just out of the listener's grasp. Given the rich musicianship on this record, no track is completely without merit, but a small handful of songs simply miss the mark and leave the listener feeling indifferent.
National Ransom is ultimately an album that rewards the patient listener. Apart from the album cover's wolf in a top hat and tails carrying a bag of burning currency and the star-studded lineup backing Costello in the studio, this is a record that relies upon subtleties: a creative turn of phrase, a surprising vocal delivery or harmony, or the way that instruments share space with one another. Costello and Burnett have created the type of record that sounds good upon a casual listen and gets even better when you really start to dig in.