Elvis Costello's new country album, Almost Blue, is a major disappointment.
The unusually prolific Costello has shown since his arrival on the pop scene in 1977 that he is one of the most gifted figures ever in rock: a masterful songwriter and compelling vocalist whose music, for all its aggression, is as compassionate and as uplifting as Bruce Springsteen's or Bob Dylan's.
But Costello's "angry man" image and the tenacious new-wave orientation of his music has caused him to be dismissed as something of an unwieldy kook both by many radio station programmers and by the mainstream rock audience in this country. This album, unfortunately, will make him even more misunderstood.
In Almost Blue, Costello shares with his audience the unabashed emotion of country music, a style he has long enjoyed. The music here is not country-rock or rockabilly, but the pure country of Merle Haggard and George Jones. The album was recorded last May in Nashville with Billy Sherrill, the most successful country producer of the 1970s, and it features such mainline country standards as Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams" and Sherrill's own "Too Far Gone." There are no Costello originals in the LP.
Costello's objectives in Almost Blue are admirable. The rock audience needs its musical horizons expanded. It is disheartening to see the intolerance of crowds which boo such outstanding country artists as Joe Ely (when he opened for the Clash a while back at the Hollywood Palladium) and such excellent R&B-accented artists as Prince (when he opened for the Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum).
Unfortunately, however, Costello has allowed his affection for country music to blur his artistic judgment Almost Blue is an earnest, but extremely conventional work that exhibits little of Costello's usual vision. Though the LP will be an interesting curio for hardcore supporters, Costello would have been better off simply including a couple of the best tracks in one of his regular studio collections.
As it is, Costello is going to have to pay an extra price for this album. If it sells as poorly as I suspect it will, radio programmers will overlook his noble intent and use it simply as another excuse to write off what they see as an unruly British oddball.
Costello has long expressed his fondness for country music. Two of his favorite singers are the late Gram Parsons, whose country-rock excursions in the late '60s and early '70s enriched both fields, and George Jones, the male country singer most respected by his peers.
In a 1978 interview, Costello even admitted writing lots of country songs early in his career, but veered away from that direction because he doubted that an Englishman could be taken seriously in country music. "There's no such thing," he said about an English country-music singer. "It's like being an English blues band — you'll always be second best."
Even so, Costello has taken productive steps into country. When he wrote "Stranger in the House" a few years ago, he seemed capable, in fact, of expanding rock and country in the manner of Parsons. The song, which spoke about a man's emotional disorientation, mocked the melodrama of country music while acknowledging the truth of such extreme feelings.
So, the expectations were high when he finally went to Nashville to work on an all-country LP.
Almost Blue begins promisingly with a nervously energetic treatment of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)." But the track, featuring Costello's Attractions band, only lasts 90 seconds and the liberties he takes with that song are rarely in evidence elsewhere in the mostly straightforward LP.
Costello's voice is a hoarse, ragged instrument that is ideal for expressing the ironies and nuances in his own inventive songs, but it lacks the purity and range to compete effectively with the original versions of these mainstream country tunes. Costello falls short of the yearning romanticism of Emmylou Harris on "Sweet Dreams" or the bittersweet resolve of Merle Haggard on "The Bottle Let Me Down" or the chilling emotion of George Jones on "A Good Day for the Roses."
Almost Blue is far from a bad country album and it may encourage some of Costello's fans to explore country music further, but it simply lacks the power and originality we have come to expect from this invaluable figure. Costello fans would get a better introduction to country by going straight to Parsons, Jones or some of the other artists whose work is saluted here.