On the title track of his latest album, Elvis Costello sings, "I want to be your delivery man." True to form, he's layered the line with several coats of irony, taking the perspective of a murderer who served time for a minor offense and is now free to spend his days tricking impressionable women. But never mind that Cliffs Notes stuff right now (in deference to his obsessive fans, he kindly explains the song's meaning and origins on his Web site). Although Costello's famously complex lyrics can't be taken at face value most of the time, in this instance he's unintentionally forthcoming: He's the delivery man because, well, he delivers. With its indelible melody and its sly intelligence, "The Delivery Man" is right up there with the best songs he's written — no small feat when you consider the scores of genius tunes he's penned in his 27-year career.
Of course, with such an encyclopedic catalog, it's hard to say with any authority what the best Costello records are. Some fans swear by the manic R&B-inflected punk of Get Happy!!; some prefer the symphonic-pop grandeur of Imperial Bedroom; some champion the lyrically perfect King of America or the toxic, twisted Blood & Chocolate. A few Costello dorks (myself included) might make an impassioned plea for the underrated All This Useless Beauty, that heavenly downer from 1996. And you know what? We're all right, even when we contradict one another, even when we contradict ourselves.
The Delivery Man isn't a radical departure for Costello, who, in all fairness, has already done pretty much everything except black metal and Tuvan throat-singing. He's written songs for Solomon Burke, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash; he's made jazz records, country records, chamber-pop records, and all manner of rock and hyphen-rock records. Whether he's doing art songs with Anne-Sofie von Otter or the Brodsky Quartet, jazzy mood pieces with new wife Diana Krall, or an honest-to-god symphonic composition with the London Symphony Orchestra, he certainly can't be accused of monotony. Nevertheless, because he is 50 years old and wildly prolific, everything he does at this point in his career is greeted as a synthesis of earlier experiments.
It's tempting to push aside all the critical games and consider The Delivery Man on its own merits. After all, there are at least a few firsts here. It's Costello's first album for roots-rock label Lost Highway and his first with the Imposters — basically the Attractions with Davey Faragher standing in for Bruce Thomas. (The band, by the way, is predictably perfect; Thomas was great, but so is Faragher, and there's no denying the prodigious abilities of Costello's longtime sidemen, keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas.) Two first-time guests round out the roster: Emmylou Harris, whose sweetly scorched soprano embellishes three of the album's loveliest tracks, and Lucinda Williams, whose alley-cat yowls on "There's a Story in Your Voice" make for one of the strangest, sloppiest duets in recent memory.
As with all Costello releases, though, the real power resides not in novelty but in the songwriting. Unless you're one of the aforementioned Costello dorks, you probably won't care that the CD is actually a loose, chronology-challenged narrative in which recurring characters parry and clash in some kind of Faulknerian soap opera. The elaborate wordplay, the epic puns, the dissonances and contradictions and brutal epiphanies — they're all going to delight the dorks and irritate the detractors, who've been complaining for decades that Costello is too clever by half. But in the dim, distant future, when spacesuit-clad music historians make an alphabetical list of the 20 greatest songwriters of the previous centuries, Costello's name will be on it, right between Irving Berlin's and Bob Dylan's.