Middle Tennessee State University Sidelines, December 11, 1981
Elvis Costello 'goes Nashville';
Elvis Costello is, in many senses, the Hunter S. Thompson of the music world.
Like the infamous gonzo journalist, Costello parlays his own fear and/or loathing of the people and emotions around him into taut, insightful narrative. There is a peculiar charm and verve, however, to their rantings.
The two also share a delight in presenting themselves in ambivalent terms, Thompson as a totally crazed seeker of sanity and truths, and Costello as a totally cynical seeker of happiness and love.
They're also bonded by a fatalistic compulsion to carp at their conduits to the public. Thompson is forever feuding with, and portraying as a wimp in print, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. And Costello, on the brink of widespread popularity and airplay a few years back, charged that radio, his primary hope for reaching a big audience, "is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin' to anesthetize the way that you would feel."
Most of all, though, the two share a flair for the unexpected; their ardent admirers can never be sure of what to next expect from either.
Such is especially the case now with Elvis, who's just released an entire album of country standards, entitled Almost Blue and recorded this summer under the auspices of venerable Nashville producer Billy Sherrill.
Even more surprisingly, this is pretty damn good stuff, sometimes teetering on the brink of the sappiness that's characterized all too much of Sherill's recent work, but rescued by Costello's obviously heartfelt renditions of these classic tunes.
Elvis had, in fact, shown more than a passing interest in country music recently. He came to Nashville a couple of years back to provide backup vocals for his own outstanding "Stranger in the House" for George Jones, and the country ballad "A Different Finger" was perhaps the best song on Trust, another outstanding Costello LP released last winter.
In fact, that number was so well arranged and produced that it's hard to understand why Elvis didn't stick with Nick Lowe, his good friend and the finest rock producer going, for this LP. He apparently decided to "go Nashville" all the way, and in that respect his choice of Sherrill was a sound one.
He even performs a song penned by Sherrill, "Too Far Gone," and the version here is a nice, mellow, underwhelming one. Two of Jones's tunes, "Brown to Blue" and "Color of the Blues," are also covered here, and both, in spite of their titles, are Nashville to the core — lush string arrangements, wailing pedal steel, occasional female background vocals, et al.
Which is not to say that this album is a showcase for the oft-maligned (and deservedly so) "Nashville Sound." In fact, Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do" is here turned into a rock 'n' roll number, and a decent one at that, albeit a bit short (1:35).
Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" gets a similar treatment, a jaunty rendition with some Jerry Lee Lewis-ish ivory tickling by Steve Neive. And Charlie Rich's "Sittin' and Thinkin'" sounds like it could have been recorded in Memphis, so soulfully is it delivered.
But Almost Blue's finest moments are provided by a pair of Gram Parsons songs.
"Hot Burrito #1," with oh-so-vulnerable singing and sparse instrumentation, is nicely done, but "How Much I Lied," the album's final number, is positively gorgeous, a riveting ballad highlighted by strong crooning from Elvis and subtle, sublime piano work by Neive.
"How Much I Lied" is an absolute chestnut, reaffirming what country music was about from the start — heartfelt emotions, often tied to lost love, set to simple instrumentation — and once again pointing up how much was lost with Parson's passing nearly a decade ago.
In itself, that song ensures that Costello's sojourn to "Music City" was a worthwhile one, and the rest of Almost Blue further demonstrates that this white boy can sing the blues — and most anything else he so chooses.
Sidelines, December 11, 1981