The music of the American South always has been close to the heart of Elvis Costello. On River In Reverse he teamed with Allen Toussaint to find his own way musically around New Orleans.
On Secret, Profane & Sugarcane he rejoins another former co-conspirator, T Bone Burnett, for a kind of Southern Gothic country music.
Burnett is the perfect man at the helm if you intend to rummage around in the underbelly of Americana, and he's put together an all-pro supporting cast, with Jerry Douglas on dobro and Emmylou Harris stopping by for harmony support. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is determinedly old-timey in its musical stance, acoustic with an almost 19th-century sensibility
All the tunes but one are Costello originals, and that distinctive, humid, Southern tension between lust and guilt, license and piety lurks throughout. "I Felt the Chill" is written from the perspective of a cheating husband who bears the guilt of his transgressions but can't shake the temptress who drives him across the line.
"Sulphur to Sugarcane" is a rake's roadmap of erotic conquest across the eastern half of the nation. "Hidden Shame" carries the burden of a secret guilt without ever revealing what the specific transgression was.
On "Red Cotton" the stain is national, even global, recounting the shame of slavery: "Sell them in lots / Then pack them tightly in coffin ships and take them to the brand new world of auction blocks and whips."
The writing meets Costello's usual lofty standards: literate, nuanced, keenly intelligent and layered. But once again I find myself torn between my admiration for Costello the writer and my reservations about Costello the singer. The songs are mostly ballads, and his voice is too pinched and narrow, too pedestrian, really, for the sophistication of the material. Once again, Costello the composer is checked by Costello the vocalist.