Versatile like an old vaudevilian, he sent himself up as The Beloved Entertainer on 1989's Spike, but if Elvis Costello's an all-timer it's because he knows what high seriousness is about.
Consider "You Hung The Moon": the setting is "Pimlico, London, 1919" (says the lyric sheet, which suggests a time and place for each song); a mother holds a seance to contact her soldier son, an executed deserter. Over murmuring strings, Costello sings both the woman's grief ("The sea has no tide/ Since he was taken from my side") and the firing squad's brutal bravado ("So slap out his terrors/ And sneer at his tears"). Song, singer and music together honour the bewilderment and beauty of mourning.
In "One Bell Ringing," a quiet affair featuring lovely voice and trumpet harmonies, the protagonist has a terrible dream about being interrogated and shot. It makes you think about Jean Charles de Menezes. Then you read the scene-setting line "London Underground, 22nd of July, 2005" the song had already done its work.
"Jimmie Standing In The Rain" carries that serious weight too, although its hero is a fake "cowboy" singer mooching around the Depression music halls ("Accrington, 1937" — "Now you're walking off to jeers, the lonely sound of jingling spurs"). Telling his tale amid subdued trad jazz, Costello measures his respect for this sorry figure like slow steps towards a New Orleans graveyard.
Three real Elvis mountain top moments then — and no lows. The other dozen tracks, T Bone Burnett producing, evince Costello's usual range of pungent moods, styles, and enjoyably angular writing, words and tunes. Betrayals and jealousies abound, whether accompanied by his combined Imposters / Sugarcanes band hammering late-'70 new wave rock ("Five Small Words," "The Spell That You Cast," Wall Street banker satire "National Ransom"), or gospel boogie supercharged by Leon Russell's piano ("My Lovely Jezebel"), or finely detailed yet unobstrusive arrangements of brass, organ, violins and more ("Church Underground," "Stations Of The Cross").
When moving to country idiom, it's striking how his language shifts from high tone — "Man is a miserable ape and a sad pile of sticks" ("My Lovely Jezebel") — to straight-talking: "I chased the one I surely loved to someone else's arms" ("I Lost You").
Occasionally his writing's so hyperactive it resists comprehension. In "Dr. Watson, I Presume"... can he be telling us, obliquely, about a psychiatrist advising him that to escape depression he'd need to start forgiving people, even Thatcher? Nah. That would be like Samson getting a haircut.