This particular year's model had sat in the can for some time, having been recorded back before the release of Momofuku. Sure, it sounds like a Costello country album, but Secret, Profane & Sugarcane had its genesis in a few other touchstones. It began (so he hinted) as a Coward Brothers project, which was a collaboration with T Bone Burnett; their "debut" had happened at the onset of King Of America, which featured the support of various American studio musicians. This time out he also had a few songs left over from the Delivery Man suite, and some others written for The Secret Songs, an opera(!) about Hans Christian Andersen and P.T. Barnum.
The CD package includes lyrics and Harry Smith-styled subheads for each of the tracks, identifying the Delivery Man and Secret Songs material where necessary, but the album is sequenced in such a way as not to call much attention to them. So what looked to be another odd collection of leftovers turned out, thanks to the players, to be a cohesive yet elusive listening experience.
Two of the songs had actually appeared on previous Costello albums. "Complicated Shadows" was a centerpiece of All This Useless Beauty in a blazing live-cum-studio performance, while a demo more in the style of Johnny Cash (for whom it was written) appeared on the reissue's bonus disc (alongside "Hidden Shame," which was also written for the man in black, and the catalyst for The Delivery Man).
The plot of the opera songs isn't always clear, but "She Handed Me A Mirror" and "How Deep Is The Red?" provide some trademark ache. "Red Cotton" is too long, and "She Was No Good" ends too quickly. "Down Among The Wines And Spirits" adds some humor to the proceedings, though the bawdy jokes of "Sulfur To Sugarcane" don't have the same impact after the first few listens.
But it's still a country album. "I Felt The Chill" was written with Loretta Lynn, and "The Crooked Line" features the always welcome Emmylou Harris. (It still sounds like "Ring Of Fire" to these ears.) There's no drums anywhere, with the percussion supplied solely by double bass and mandolin, and local color from Jerry Douglas on dobro and Jim Lauderdale on constant harmony.
Some may still dismiss this album as a typical Costello genre exercise, yet Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is another chapter in Elvis's ongoing fascination with country music. Indeed, while he's upfront about his influences, his take on country sounds like no one else. Time will tell if this album should be considered a major work or just another footnote. In the meantime, while it's nice to listen to, we wish he'd go back to writing songs with singable choruses. The closest candidate here — "My All Time Doll," which also sounds closest to his stereotypical style — doesn't cut it.