The Elvis renaissance continues. Any artist who is compelled to churn out work over the decades is sure to hit a dry spell at some point, and there was a time in Costello’s career when it looked like his fans would be forever harking back to his late 1970s and early 80s glory days with The Attractions for succour.
In recent years, however, he has been back on a roll. It seems he can’t help himself, notching up collaborations with Burt Bacharach (the exquisite Painted From Memory), jazz albums (last year’s admittedly shakily received North, inspired by his relationship with his new wife Diana Krall), a tour with trusty sidekick Steve Nieve on piano, which proved a stunning showcase for both men’s talents, even his first full-length orchestral piece, Il Sogno, which he premiered this summer at the Lincoln Centre Festival in New York. I cannot think of any other musician who can so deftly straddle such diverse musical genres.
A further source of his reinvigoration was the formation of his redoubtable backing band The Imposters, who number two-thirds of The Attractions — Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas — and bassist Davey Farragher, and already feel like an intrinsic part of the Costello experience. Their debut collaboration, When I Was Cruel, released two years ago, was hailed as a return to past form. Any remaining doubters should listen to The Delivery Man and witness a performer and band who have managed to preserve their instinctive relationship over time to create an album which sounds liberating when it could have been complacent.
Opening track "Button My Lip," a satirical swipe at censorship in a post-9/11 world, is a renegade rock rumble in a loose jazz framework, with Costello, in bilious mood, howling "button my lip until I’m old enough / I’m smart enough" as Nieve hammers out excerpts of America from West Side Story. There is nothing else with such fluency on the album, but that is not a negative. Costello has a lot of ground he plans to cover, and there is not enough space over 13 tracks to linger too long in one area.
That said, The Delivery Man is predominantly a roots album, with country flavours running through many tracks. "Country Darkness" is a mellifluous, soulful lament about emotionally trapped individuals, which sits back-to-back with the contrasting, earthy, toe-tapping country rocker "There’s a Story in Your Voice." Round about the second verse, Lucinda Williams crashes the party, and she sounds like she’s been gargling with paint-stripper (which might be bad for her, but it’s definitely good for us), or just plain ornery, as the country folks might say. Williams is not Costello’s only guest. Emmylou Harris lends her tremulous, emotive voice to three tracks, all of them wonderful in their individual ways. "Heart Shaped Bruise" ("it will fade from purple to violet"), a tale of a bereft lovers, is classic country tears-in-my-beer territory. "Nothing Clings Like Ivy" is a tender, delicate piano ballad which is an oasis of calm in the centre of the album, despite its dark, regret-filled subject matter. Most spartan of the three is "Scarlet Tide," an Oscar-nominated song from the Cold Mountain soundtrack, which is a beguiling missive from another time.
But Costello and the Imposters have their rockin’ boots on too and they let rip on "Needle Time," as strutting a modern take on low-slung garage blues as The White Stripes, if not quite as raw and cathartic. "Bedlam" kicks up considerable dust too, but is too rhythmically disciplined to live up to its name.
Nieve adds a little background psychedelic keyboard to each of these, like Ray Manzarek of The Doors if he knew where to draw the line. "Monkey to Man," another fine rootsy rocker, also has that New Wave swagger of his early hits.
There is not a below-par track to be heard. Arguably, the album’s greatest strength is its showcase of Costello’s magnificent voice, which seems to gain in both power and subtlety as time goes on. He really excels wrapping his vocals around a soaring ballad, such as the towering blues of "Either Side of the Same Town," about the painful transition from lovers to strangers, or the chest-beating courtroom drama "The Judgement," where love is on trial.
Last month, Elvis Costello turned 50. Maybe his current spurt of activity is the result of one of those "x number of things you should do before you turn y" pledges. Or maybe his is still one of music’s principal talents. This album is aptly titled, as Costello has lost none of his power to deliver.