Elvis's flirtation with bluegrass on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane proved to be much more than that once he took the show on the road. Several new songs came to fruition, and having taken the newly christened Sugarcanes back to the studio with T Bone Burnett at the helm, he emerged with National Ransom, a much more cohesive work than its predecessor.
The sheer variety of sound and style certainly makes it more interesting, with lots of nooks and crannies to hide the details. He hasn't put out an album this, dare we say, eclectic since Spike. While that album — also a T Bone Burnett production — flirted with Celtic and New Orleans influences, much of National Ransom is colored by country and bluegrass instruments, with "pre-war" and Western swing being the predominant genres.
Thankfully, any and all drums are provided by Pete Thomas, and Steve Nieve is allowed to contribute some piano and organ here and there. The rave-up title track has some new alt.country elements, as does "Five Small Words" and the truly catchy "I Lost You," yet it's not a stretch to hear these played by the Imposters. And good luck not getting swept up by the twisted Merseybeat of "The Spell That You Cast."
"Bullets For The New-Born King" shows off his guitar prowess, those little hands of concrete finding gentle parts to play. Even more effective is the moving "One Bell Ringing," with its horn parts reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's jazzier albums. Other tracks seem familiar; "Stations Of The Cross" borrows heavily from "My Dark Life," while "Church Underground" appears to be a development of what started in "Just Another Mystery." "That's Not The Part Of Him You're Leaving" follows in the R&B/soul tradition of The Delivery Man and The River In Reverse, while "My Lovely Jezebel," despite the presence of Leon Russell and Marc Ribot, doesn't quite make it.
Then there are songs that sound like they come from another time or place, like "Jimmie Standing In The Rain," which would have fit on Spike, and the charming "A Slow Drag With Josephine," with its closing whistle that reminds us of the Star Wars cantina scene. He's been trying to write the big send-off of "A Voice in The Dark" for years, and he's finally nailed it. Meanwhile, "You Hung The Moon" is a lovely crooner, even despite the subject matter.
In fact, some of these lyrics are so dense it's not always clear what he's on about, while others, like the clunkily-titled "Dr. Watson, I Presume" are a little too obvious, but at least that one has a decent chorus. "All These Strangers" has potential, but takes so long to navigate the twists and turns of the melody following all the words.
At over an hour long, National Ransom was considered a bona fide double album, but he wasn't done yet. Those who ordered it directly via his website had the option to receive the four-song National Ransack EP, later issued only on vinyl. Along with two excellent originals, a cover of "Big Boys Cry" by Bobby Charles and a surprising remake of his own "I Don't Want To Go Home," previously heard only in demo format on one of the My Aim Is True reissues, make it an essential companion to the album proper.