Most pop musicians Elvis Costello's age aren't good for much more than the musical equivalent of creeping along in the left lane with the blinker on. Their creativity long since dormant, such artists insist on churning out material they would have found embarrassing when they were haughty young rock stars. This shall henceforth be known as the Sting Effect.
Costello, though, continues to push himself in different directions. Now 50, he collaborated with Burt Bacharach in the late '90s, released an album of standards-influenced torch songs last year, just wrote a classical score for a ballet and delves into rootsy rock 'n' roll on his latest, The Delivery Man.
The roots-rock thing actually started a few years ago when Costello collaborated with Lucinda Williams on Crossroads, a Country Music Television experiment in pairing musicians from different backgrounds.
It must have worked: Williams shows up here on "There's a Story in Your Voice," a gut-stomping country-rock duet that finds Costello well-versed in classic country guitar licks.
If you have Williams, you might as well include Emmylou Harris, too. She contributes ethereal harmony to the piano ballad "Nothing Clings Like Ivy" and duets with Costello on "Heart Shaped Bruise" and "The Scarlet Tide."
What's impressive here, though, is how well Costello blends into the landscape of Americana music. There are still jagged edges and dissonance, but The Delivery Man feels more organic and less meticulous than his 2002 album, When I Was Cruel. Ramped-up songs like "Needle Time" sound urgent, as if he and the Imposters would have started playing on the lawn had the studio been locked for some reason. Costello's biting wit remains intact as well, and he sings "Monkey to Man" from the disappointed perspective of animals in a zoo watching humans from inside "the bars we use for keeping you out." The title track sounds the most like vintage Costello, with its sinuous melody and vaguely ominous lyrics.
If this is what the delivery man brings, maybe some of Costello's contemporaries should place an order, too.