Pity the poor marketing people at CBS faced with explaining Elvis Costello's maverick path through modern rock. Between the eclectic classicism of his Taking Liberties anthology and the r&b-flavored Get Happy, both released in 1980, rock's Next Big Thing has managed to gaze backwards as well as ahead. Now comes this startling collaboration with Nashville hitmaker Billy Sherrill, nothing less than a gourmet anthology of country chestnuts performed in generally authentic (and by 1981 standards that translates to downright austere) settings.
Costello isn't George Jones, one of the influences shadowing this effort, but the equation works. Like Gram Parsons, the other pole steering both the topical focus and interpretive vision behind this album, Costello's rough-edged vocal attack and brutal candor gets close to the bone, bringing forth the true power of Southern white music. Hints of his affection for the genre have been visible from his earliest records, first surfacing on "Stranger in the House," a bonus single released overseas with his second album and later covered by Jones himself in a duet with Costello.
The Attractions hammer together lean, convincing arrangements to which Sherrill adds such initially incongruous embellishments as the Nashville Edition's creamy backing choruses and the widescreen sheen of a string section. The band's rock-edged rhythmic drive remains intact and Costello himself wisely avoids unnatural country mannerisms. He reads these lyrics as he would his own, and the soulful fervor long crucial to his singing bridges the gap to country effectively. Indeed, what proves revealing here is how naturally the songwriter has made the transition.
That pairing of rock diction and bedrock country inflection serves both songs and interpreter beautifully, for country's emotional themes prove a meeting ground: Costello delves into such familiar topics as romantic frustration (Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me"), cynical dissipation ("Sittin' and Thinkin'" by Charlie Rich), rejection ("A Good Year for the Roses," a classic weeper associated with George Jones), and guilt (Parsons' "How Much I Lied").
Hard-core country fans may find deficiencies in Costello's interpretations, and the rocker's own trendier followers will doubtless be ruffled by the more subdued dynamics and conventional imagery dictated by the material. Yet on balance, Almost Blue is a credible exercise in the earliest and purist conception of country/rock as originated by Parsons and the two bands he helped lead into grass roots sources, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Bros. As Parsons did, Costello is investing country music with fresh meaning without a trace of condescension.