When Elvis Costello picked up an acoustic guitar in the mid-'80s after two baffling albums full of horns and keyboards, the result was one of the high points in Costello's already-great discography. Costello teamed with producer T-Bone Burnett for that album, King of America, and 23 years later the two are back together for Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
Costello has never quite eclipsed that peak, settling into a pattern of churning out reliable genre exercises in country, jazz, classical and rock and collaborating with Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet and Allen Toussaint. Burnett, on the other hand, has become the go-to man for Americana/roots recordings, winning a Grammy for his production on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' debut album and the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. The reunion of Costello and Burnett creates an accessible entry point for a public that reaches beyond his usual audience of the core and the curious.
Unfortunately, the magic that sparked King of America is absent on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. While Burnett has rounded up an all-star cast of bluegrass musicians, the music feels like a stiff genre exercise. It is almost as if Costello is guesting on his own Pickin' On tribute, or starring in O Brother Where Art Costello. Costello's decision to revisit two songs from his back catalog reinforces this notion. "Complicated Shadows" was a great Johnny Cash-inspired slow-burning rock song in its original incarnation back in 1996. Here, it's half the length and feels like Costello slapped his old lyrics over a generic bluegrass arrangement.
It neither helps nor hurts the listening experience to know that these songs were culled from an unfinished opera about Hans Christian Anderson, previous albums and leftovers from other projects. With little exception, they are all painted with the same brush and do little to distinguish themselves from the gray wash of an album that is neither offensive nor interesting.
The songs that do stand out are the two co-written by Burnett and Costello. "Sulphur to Sugarcane" is an extended innuendo delivered with a broad poke in the ribs and exaggerated arched eyebrow. It recalls the routines of Dusty and Lefty, the off-color cowboy duo played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Riley in the film A Prairie Home Companion.
"The Crooked Line," however, is a standout in the good way. This next-to-last tune rewards the listener for nearly making it through the album with the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris. Harris may be the best and most underrated duet singer in music. She consistently works harder on her supporting vocals than most singers invest in their singles. Her voice soars, subtly complimenting the melody, adding a mesmerizing countermelody. Whether on Lyle Lovett's "Walk Through the Bottomland" or Bob Dylan's "Mozambique," her voice never ceases to inadvertently creep into the spotlight and eventually command full attention.
Drawing on the chemistry she and Costello established in their previous collaboration on his Delivery Man album and subsequent tour, Harris doesn't disappoint on "The Crooked Line." Like a jazz musician breathing life into a trite pop standard, Harris' singing salvages a ho-hum song and arrangement and turns it into something worth repeated listens.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane has been released on Starbuck's Hear Music label, and it seems a perfect fit for the latte-drinking, NPR-listening caricature scribbled up in political circles. For this audience, Costello's name means maverick, Burnett's means quality and the country-folk stylings make it unique, yet comfortable. But fans of Costello, Burnett and bluegrass alike can do much better than this.