Elvis Costello has had quite a long and varied career to say the least, making albums bordering on punk on one hand and working with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint at others. The genres he’s avoided, like metal or hip-hop, are surely more by choice than inability. There’s no question that as both a performer and a songwriter, he has few peers in terms of the breadth and quality of his work. That’s not to say he’s all things to all people, but that, as particularly evidenced on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, he’s Elvis Costello to whatever audience he chooses.
This time around, Costello takes on a particularly rootsy, unabashedly American form, dabbling in folk, country and bluegrass throughout. What he displays here, as he has so often in the past, is that he really doesn’t play in each of the genres he engages so much as he adapts those genres to work with his distinct songwriting.
This works particularly well here for two reasons. First, Costello can write some great songs. There have been plenty of points in his career where the songs weren’t up to the standard he had set, but they certainly are here. This is the strongest set of songs I’ve heard from him in some time and many could just as easily have been performed in a style he explored on another of his albums. They just work fundamentally, maintaining that which makes them distinctly his work.
Second, he understands the subtleties of the style in which he’s working. These aren’t just pop songs with some sting band instrumentation and a twang in his voice. The arrangements are careful to both evoke country music’s vivid history and retain Costello’s unique qualities. In addition to that, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane demonstrates an understanding that goes deeper than the music itself. It walks country’s fine lines between the secular and religious and the happy and the sad.
The album succeeds largely because it isn’t a superficial carbon copy, but a continuation of a long tradition. Elvis Costello hasn’t inserted old-time country into his repertoire, but rather inserted himself into country’s rich history.