Last year, with Trust, it was Elvis the Soul Giant. Now he is just country boy. Yes, it is spirited and yes it is honest. The only thing wrong with Almost Blue is its mere presence. It has no reason for being — nothing has led up to this album. Elvis sings nice country songs. I like country music and, though it's interesting to note Costello's diversity, many people do it better.
Almost Blue confirms my intuitions raised by Trust. Costello is standing still. He's singing well and writing prolifically but, at present, with little conviction. Maybe I was wrong in assuming him to be some Dylan figure. His music definitely follows in a logical stylistic pattern up until Get Happy. After that it is Brick Wall City.
Almost Blue has no Costello tunes. This is good. His country tunes (especially last year's rock-bottom "Different Finger") are transparent in a self-conscious way. These songs were obviously chosen for their vocal delivery. "Success" by Moon Mullins steals Side One. Costello has improved — especially in the high register of his voice. "Hot Burrito #1," by the late Gram Parsons, is a disappointment. The reading is quick and misses Parson's lonely mood.
The contradiction of moods thin out Almost Blue. Costello picked songs of a sadder nature and sings them in a much too oft-handed way. This should have been a rollicking stamp-yer-boots record. Instead, We are left with aural ambivalence, conflicting intentions creating a neither-here-nor-there overall effect.
Elvis country is weighted down (maybe change the title to Almost There, har, har). Side Two offers a few inspired cuts, though. "A Good Year for the Roses" is certainly beautiful, Costello's best vocal on the album. His vocal inflections are quite interesting. "Too Far Gone," by producer Billy Sherrill, stands out as well.
Sherrill is the first producer Elvis has used outside of Nick Lowe. His sound is amazingly similar to Lowe's, pitched somewhere between the straightforwardness of Trust and the wall-of-soundish My Aim is True. The sound works best on the slow numbers. The lush female harmonies never overpower and the overall sound is thick. The rockers sound a little sluggish. "Honey Hush" is way too subdued.
An interesting addition to Elvis' lineup is John McFee who backed up Elvis on his first album. McFee, now with the Doobie Brothers (!) plays pedal steel and lead guitar. Elvis should play more lead guitar. From what little I've heard, he sounds more than competant. His acoustic guitar is mixed down on Almost Blue, an album I can't like or dislike. I never thought Elvis Costello could ever make such innocuous music.
A decent crooner, Costello still sounds more like Bob Dylan than George Jones. I'm not writing him off. This man has many good albums left in him.