Elvis Costello once stated that his greatest fear was "repeating myself in diminishing echoes." He has worked hard with each successive album not to musically repeat himself. Indeed, the first six Elvis Costello albums all stand testimony as powerful, ingenious work from the master of so-called "new wave" rock. It should come as no surprise, then, that his seventh LP is a complete departure even from his usual musical stylings. The twelve tracks on Almost Blue are careful reworkings of standard classic country and western songs. El and the Attractions (Pete Thomas — drums, Bruce Thomas — bass, Steve Nieve — keyboards) go through a veritable C&W hall of fame, using material from Hank Williams, Charlie Rich, Merle Haggard, and, of course, Elvis' hero, George Jones.
Side one kicks off with a powerful romp through Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)", a blast of raveup honky-tonk. We know immediately that this will be no ordinary CAW cover record. Elvis then switches into true country with Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams," complete with pedal steel guitar (by sideman John McFee), backing vocals, and violin. Elvis' own vocal stands out above even Steve Nieve's classical-tinged piano work, turning out a timeless edition of a timeless classic. Other highlights are the songs "I'm Your Toy," with another beautiful Costello vocal treading out a sad C&W tale, and the Merle Haggard standard "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." This song is another energetic raveup; we can tell that the band is definitely enjoying itself.
Side two starts off with George Jones' "A Good Year for the Roses," a fabulous single choice, in Which Costello pulls off another sad tale through his subtle but but powerful vocal. Elvis sounds like an age-old C&W master in the Charlie Rich tune "Sittin' and Thinkin,'" which holds forth the basic knock-down drag-out get drunk country themes. The album closes with wonderful versions of "Honey Hush," another upbeat rollicking Attractions specialty, with some strong guitar licks, and "How Much I Lied," again featuring Nieve's excellent piano, and the strong, ever-present Costello vocal.
Recorded in Nashville with top country producer Billy Sherrill, Costello strives for authenticity throughout Almost Blue. El and the Attractions have lovingly redone these standard C&W songs without defiling them. Elvis strips the songs back to their essentials and rebuilds them in his own way. Just as in his excellent Get Happy!! LP, where Costello created his own gritty stax-volt rhythm-and-blues sound, on Almost Blue he is able to recreate a country sound definitely in his own image. None of the songs are originals, but Elvis makes than all his own. His own vocals have improved from earlier material, and the Attractions have never sounded better. Elvis Costello is in every way a musical genius. Almost Blue is simply more fantastic proof. Elvis will never be caught in one musical pigeonhole, he must continue to move on. It is up to his fans to move on with him. And so to kings.