Whether you're familiar with these honest to goodness cry-in-your suds country classics or not, Elvis' Almost Blue, recorded in Nashville with veteran C&W producer Billy Sherrill, still offers a revelatory peek inside the oft-cryptic Costello psyche. And, while I may not listen to it as obsessively as I do This Year's Model, Armed Forces or his Tamla tribute, Get Happy!!, Elvis Costello's latest strikes me as his most personal work to date, even if he didn't write any of the songs.
Unlike such other slavish exercises in nostalgia as Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive, Almost Blue is far from a startling stylistic departure for Elvis. This is not merely the case of an English musician guiltily paying his debt to a native American idiom. Instead of imitation, Costello makes this revival all his own by penetrating the usual country clichés of blooze, boose and broads, instilling them with the urgency of his own ability to unearth the message behind the myths. In fact, if it weren't for their origins and the ubiquitous pedal-steel of ex-Clover guitarist John McFee (who backed Costello on his debut, My Aim Is True), these ditties might even be mistaken for Elvis originals. Thus invoking the fury of country purists who wonder how this limey punk with the sacrilegious name would dare tamper with the legends of George Jones, Patsy Cline, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, let alone such cherished "newcomers" as Gram Parsons or Emmylou Harris.
Actually, Elvis' obsession with country music has always been evident, and it wasn't just the obvious tunes like his version of George Jones' "Stranger In The House," either. From "Alison" through "Radio Sweetheart" to "Shot With His Own Gun," Costello has used the surface imagery of country, if not the actual music, to drive home his savage critique of contemporary relationships. By immersing himself in the lyrical conventions of country music on Almost Blue, Elvis ironically reveals more about himself in the process than many of his own convoluted, punning lyrics themselves manage to.
It is sentiment, though, not words, which makes Almost Blue so affecting. Thanks to an open-minded, modernistic production by Sherrill, Costello doesn't just mine this vault but effortlessly renews a glittering set of standards. This is not your orthodox twangin', pardner, despite the gloriously swelling strings and stirring harmonies provided by the Nashville Edition on the first single, another George Jones weepie, "A Good Year For The Roses." It is, rather, a way of pointing out the unbroken circle which links the warring camps of punk, rock, pop, country and R&B, showing us they have more in common than our prejudices would, at first, have us realize.
In Almost Blue, Elvis Costello stands emotionally naked, wrenching every bit of gut he can out of a music usually bathed in bathos. It's almost enough to make this urban cowboy cry.