Elvis Costello's home sounds like a mini-war zone.
Over the phone from his West Vancouver residence, where he and his wife, Canadian jazz chanteuse Diana Krall, spend a good part of their time, you can hear their four-year-old-twins, Dexter Henry Lorcan and Frank Harlan James, running amok in the background.
"Yeah, I have to go play referee in a minute," Costello says with a chuckle.
If the ruckus at home gives Costello a reason to smile, an entirely different — and much more serious — kind of turmoil makes up the core theme of his latest album, National Ransom, released today.
The album cover, designed by famed cartoonist/illustrator Tony Millionaire, is striking: a wolf dressed in business attire, money flying out of its attache case, catching fire as it floats through the air. The scene, with oil rigs, fighter jets and the "all-seeing eye" pyramid of the US dollar in the background, is framed within a bill design that emulates various international currencies.
The message is clear: The wolf — an embodiment of the big banks, multinational corporations and greedy politicians profiting from bailouts and handouts — isn't at the door anymore: It has pillaged and plundered your home, and now it is making a run for it.
On National Ransom, Costello paints 16 vignettes of the times we live in — financial crisis, war, global uncertainty — stamped with the echoes of crises past and their musical cornerstones. He does so with a poignant spirit, sonically touching upon the swinging 1920s, the dust-bowl twang of the Great Depression, the gospel and soul of the inner city, and the rock'n'roll-inflected strife of modern times, and through the characters, real and imagined, living within the stories in his songs.
"It's not to say that it's not circumstances that people haven't confronted before," Costello says of the concept behind National Ransom. "This particular 'ransom' has been called for on a number of occasions, but we're living through it now.
"The characters in some of the songs are walking through the times when these sorts of conditions applied in the past," Costello adds, "and I've borrowed some of the musical structures from there. I'm not trying to replicate songs from those eras exactly. I'm using hints of that music to bring these songs and characters to life the best I can. And they're new songs: They're being played in the present moment with the immediacy of new songs."
Recorded in just 11 days in Nashville and Los Angeles National Ransom is populated by tales of misfortune and regret: A cowboy singer playing musical halls in England in the 1930s ("Jimmie Standing In The Rain"), a regretful assassin ("Bullets for the New-Born King"), a nightclub singer going from obscurity to infamy ("Church Underground").
The cast Costello called upon for National Ransom is a familiar one: All the members of Costello's backing bands, The Imposters and The Sugarcanes, appear at one point or another, along with guests Vince Gill, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell (who also just released a duet album with Elton John).
"It really is 'performing.' It's not produced in a factory assembly line way. You do one rehearsal and play it and that's it."
As for how much influence being a "guest Canadian" has had on the making of National Ransom, he admits that spending a lot of time in Vancouver and raising his twins there has helped provide him with a brand-new perspective on the world.
"My boys were born in New York, so in this family we're three nationalities," Costello says. "Maybe that's a good thing, looking across the border from Canada into the States, or from England into Europe, and vice versa. I'm very fortunate that the working life I have allows me those perspectives and how it feeds into the songs. You have to look at the geographical relation (on National Ransom): There are songs set in London, there are songs set in the north of England, there are songs set in the past, there are songs set in the future, there are songs set in an imaginary place. I don't doubt that the peace and decency I've encountered day-to-day, predominantly here, allows you the time to think and do the writing."
In a way, Costello contends his new-found Canadian identity may have truly taken shape when he took part in Hal Wilner's Neil Young Project during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which had his start thinking about a cross-Canada tour (something he hasn't done since 1978).
"I wasn't astounded by the reaction I got when I walked onto the stage, and realized that, to some degree, I seem to be regarded as belonging there now," Costello says. "I've never really felt that way anywhere, including in London, where I was born."