It's easy to see why a few select fans of Elvis Costello have been turned off by Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
As was the case with last year's Momofuku, this is a looser, more laid-back version of the British-born musician's songwriting and performance sensibilities. And more than anything, he actually sounds like he's having fun playing and recording music.
That's a rather big change for an artist who's known for his sometimes caustic lyrics and who was once considered one of England's "Angry Young Men" (joining Joe Jackson and the almost-forgotten Graham Parker).
This unpretentious collection might not be an essential work in the vast Costello canon and might not be as adventurous as either his earlier albums or his symphonic and orchestral compositions. But taken on its own terms, it is pretty enjoyable.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane sees him returning to his dabblings in country music and Americana, as he did with the well-regarded 2004 album The Delivery Man. However, this one is more akin to his underrated King of America (1985). He even recorded with O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett and uses some of the same musicians from that earlier album.
Among this baker's dozen of songs — which includes a couple of covers — are Costello's reclamation of "Complicated Shadows," a song he originally wrote for Johnny Cash. The dry, almost spartan arrangement gives it a haunting quality, and smartly, he resists the temptation to mimic Cash's baritone delivery.
Speaking of Costello's singing, in the past he had a tendency to oversing on the more country-fied songs. Here he's considerably more restrained.
And age has added richness to his voice. He sounds terrific on "I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came," which was co-written with Loretta Lynn, as well as his take on the old chestnut "Changing Partners."
"The Crooked Line" is possibly the most hook-filled song here, and thus is the most enjoyable. (Costello's pal Emmylou Harris even chimes in with some harmony vocals.)