The diversity of Elvis Costello's output over the last decade or so is undeniable. His work with the Brodsky Quartet, 1992's The Juliet Letters, prompted him to learn musical notation, and the discovery evidently proved a springboard. Since then he has scored songs for Anne Sofie von Otter with the Brodsky, performed with people such as the guitarist Bill Frisell (at his own Meltdown in 1995 — don't look for the recording, it's heavy going), and collaborated on an album with Burt Bacharach; last year saw him release an album of piano ballads. All the while he has carried on a career as a rock star. And now this: the release in the same week of a new album with his touring band the Imposters, and a recording of his first full-length work for orchestra. How does he do it?
In fact there's a little sleight of hand at play; the rock album The Delivery Man was made this year but, while Il Sogno received its premiere earlier in the summer (the score was written for the Italian dance company Aterballeto's loose transposition of A Midsummer Night's Dream) the recording, with the LSO and Michael Tilson Thomas, was made in the spring of 2002. All the same, releasing the two records in the same week is a deliberate move. In fact it looks like showing off.
To take the ballet score first, Costello has, unsurprisingly, gone wider than the conventional canon for his noises and influences. The Romanian cimbalom figures prominently for a start, playing the recurring figure representing confusion. And he has chosen to evoke the different types of character in the work with different modes of music; jazz creeps in for fairies — the stabbing strings of "The State of Affairs" are supplanted by music which reminds you that Costello's father, Ross McManus, toured with the Joe Loss Orchestra, and later in "Oberon and Titania" John Harle and Chris Laurence are used to great effect on saxophone and double bass before the score drifts off into what almost sounds like a Seventies orchestral soundtrack.
Not that Costello doesn't use the full palette at his disposal, and there are some great dramatic moments, as in the crashing strangeness and rage of "The Jealousy of Helena," or "Workers' Playtime," which follows, where Bottom's theme comes charging in like an ass, sparring with the other characters' motifs. Costello confesses to having been rushed to finish the score, but in fact, especially if you are following using the sleevenotes, the way he interweaves his themes as the action progresses is a revelation. Arching over all of it too is his sense of melody; you can almost hear him singing the main themes when they are restated in the closing "The Marriage," so much are they his.
Recorded in Oxford, Mississippi, The Delivery Man is a rough and ready affair. Casting off the polished experimental quality of last year's When I Was Cruel, it is instead stripped back and sometimes ramshackle. Opener "Button My Lip" gives you some idea of what is to follow, with huge shuffling drums from Chris Thomas and a bustling bassline from Davey Farragher; it turns into a bizarre gumbo as Steve Nieve references snatches of familiar melody on the piano, turning into a cacophonous din behind Costello's yelled spite, and ending with odd delay on the vocal and messy guitar chords. "Country Darkness" is its antithesis; it's a slow country number, confusing at first because of the strange modulations in the piano, but blessed with a winning melody; Costello's voice is raw over lovely pedal steel.
Lucinda Williams makes a guest appearance on "There's a Story in Your Voice," a standard country rocker, and it's one of the most bizarre performances you'll hear all year; she sounds genuinely drunk, blurting and slurring her words, a female, Deep South counterpart to Shane McGowan. Then "Either Side of the Same Town" finds a pleasant cracked quality to Costello's voice on the high notes as he takes on his own close harmonies, sweet piano from Nieve and dirty tremelo guitar backing a mournful lament for ex-lovers trapped by a grid system that won't erase the memories.
And so on. In fact country slowie follows messy rocker throughout the album, a conscious juxtaposition and one which works well. It's hard to pick favourites; nearly every track deserves a mention; "Needle Time" is among the best rockers, a fug of fuzzy low guitars and thick tom patterns that slows down to half-time for its chorus with some charm and fires up again with apparent abandon.
There are also three duets with Emmylou Harris to consider. Her and Costello's vibratos mesh nicely on "Nothing Clings Like Ivy"; "Heart-shaped Bruise" gels less well, as if the vocals were recorded at different times; but the prize goes to the closing track "Scarlet Tide," written for the soundtrack to Cold Mountain, a sad little ditty where the pair's voices intertwine perfectly over what sounds like a plucked ukulele, beauty absolute. Two very different bits of work, then, and both rather successful in their way: reason enough to show off?