Dedicated from the opening bell to the idea of over-carving his own legend, it was probably only a matter of time before Elvis Costello turned up in Nashville, embracing country music with such partisan conviction.
Thriving on exaggeration and melodrama, it's not surprising that so much country and western smocks of soap opera. From Hank Williams to Gram Parsons, its heroes have loved their lives like episodes of some long-running saga where the emotional temperature is always running close to fever.
It's not impossible to imagine Costello being drown to the devil in country music: that impulse that drove Williams and Parsons to the edge, the celebrations of indulgence, the maudlin regret that invariably follows a surrender to sudden whims of self-destructive passion. Costello has catalogued such instances often enough in his own work: "Riot Act," "Accidents Will Happen," "Party Girl" and "You'll Never Be A Man" immediately suggest themselves as examples of Elvis refusing to fight shy of the fire.
But there are truths expressed in country music that even a songwriter as forcefully articulate as Costello has found difficult to accommodate or even duplicate. Nashville loves nothing more thee the sound of breaking hearts and the ability of its writers to zero in on moments of emotional stress and disaster with an explicit clarity. Whether it's regarded as the sweetest amnesty or a wound that never heals, love in country music seems to leave only tears for souvenirs.
Displaying a voracious appetite for the sheer detail of personal upheaval and distress, country songwriting usually illuminates the painful ironies of the lovelorn in a language more direct and unambiguous than the majority of mainstream rock. Considering the increasing complexity of his own writing ("New Lace Sleeves," "Big Sister's Clothes"), Costello must have relished this opportunity of expressing his feelings through songs whose succinct economy has recently evaded him.
Simultaneously, Almost Blue has offered him an eagerly-seized opportunity to enjoy and exploit the vocal flair he began to tap with sudden energy on Trust.
One of the first things that strikes the listener about Almost Blue is how relaxed and assured everyone sounds, especially Costello whose voice has rarely enjoyed such freedom and expressive scope.
Broadly, the 12 tracks on the LP are divided between driving, shellacking honky tonk tunes and exquisitely poignant ballads. Representing the former category, the album opens with a rollicking version of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)." Special guest John McFee leads the charge with fleet, rippling guitar runs; sounding like he's served an apprenticeship in a hundred Texas saloons, Steve Nieve is at his shoulder supplying strafing piano frills.
Elvis brings the track to a demon conclusion with a final exultant vocal yowl that lifts your knees right off the carpet.
Classic drinker's laments, Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" and Charlie Rich's "Sittin' And Thinkin'," find the chaps back at the bar in some downtown honky-tonk. Nieve's brilliantly sparkling pianistics again provide the instrumental highlights behind Costello's brawling vocals. Rounding off this side of the LP, "Honey Hush" is a brief, almost cursory flurry. Like balling in the dark, it's good sweaty fun, but a bit fumbled.
Balancing the riotous tone of these cuts end the gravity of the ballads, Costello and producer Billy Sherrill have included a trio of songs that prop up the more laconic side of country. Touching, but not overwhelmingly intense, "Success," "Colour Of The Blues" and "Brown To Blue" are simply but carefully crafted.
Featuring vocal leads from Costello that are so heartfelt you can almost hear them beating, these performances are spare, determined, full of delicious ironies. "Brown To Blue" is especially memorable for the wit and economy with which it sets up its account of separation and divorce.
"We stood there in the courthouse room, so close but far apart," Costello sings with mischievous sincerity. "You brought along a lawyer and I brought a broken heart..." Wonderful!
It's the remaining five ballads, though, that contain the real heart of the record. I've already reviewed "Good Year For The Roses" at some length, so I'll restrain myself here to saying that its stature simply increases with every play and it's still overshadowed by Costello's interpretations of three classic country tearjerkers, Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams," Sherrill's own "Too Far Gone" and the Gram Parsons/Chris Ethridge masterpiece "Hot Burrito No. 1," here retitled "I'm Your Toy."
The very definition of poignant regret, "Sweet Dreams" gets the full fireworks from Sherrill who supports Costello's painfully wracked vocal with soaring strings, full-throated vocal counterpoints from the Nashville Edition and Nieve's glittering piano elaborations. Costello 's aching reading of the lyric should have you on the couch with a cushion in your mouth.
"Too Far Gone" and "I'm Your Toy" are even more bruising. Both songs are addressed to former lovers; the singer is deserted, lonely, pleading, his old love is burning with a new flame, the singer can't extinguish his passion for her. "Once upon a time, you let me feel you deep inside / and nobody knew, nobody saw / do you remember the way you cried?" sings Costello on "I'm Your Toy." Against an atmosphere of emotional dereliction, he's never sounded so exposed, vulnerable or tender.
As ever, the hardest part of loving and losing is knowing you'll survive, and it's this poignant recognition that flares again on the LP's final cut, a version of another Gram Parsons' song (from his first solo album), "How Much I Lied." More resilient here, the singer counts the cost of his own passions, the price of his restless urges, gently asks for understanding, if not forgiveness.
It's an elegant conclusion to an album whose blatant emotional thrust cuts swiftly across the synthetic posturing of most current pop. Almost Blue unashamedly evoke memories of all the places you thought you'd never leave but did, all the lovers you thought you'd still know, don't, but can't forget.
It's a relief to know that passion's not completely out of fashion.