Framed by an arc of lights on the ceiling of an exquisite marble hall, Elvis Costello stepped to the microphone. He’d told his seven-piece country band to stand down for the next song, but double-bassist Dennis Crouch kept a menacing pulse going as Costello plucked at a vintage acoustic guitar.
Costello had kept things as light as he could all night Tuesday. But "National Ransom" — his latest thought-provoking album, released that day — is no joyride. Eyes half closed, standing firm as a fullback throwing a block, pop’s grand agitator delivered "One Bell Ringing," the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian immigrant to London accidentally killed by police in the nervous days following the tube bombings of 2005.
It was Election Day in New York City, and the enduring Costello — every intellectual’s favorite pop star — was doing what he does best these days: entertaining crowds by posing tough questions through song.
On tracks from the T-Bone Burnett-produced "National Ransom" (Hear Music), Costello aired the timely obsessions of a discouraged social critic. How much of our humanity are we willing to sacrifice in the name of security? Do tough times bring out our compassion, or our cruelty?
The singing essayist chose the ideal venue for a meditation on past and current events: the Celeste Bartos Forum of the New York Public Library. Costello, who hit with the tongue-twisting "Watching the Detectives" and "Pump it Up" in the late ’70s, is a notorious punster and wordsmith. For an hour and a quarter, he and his bluegrass-inspired Sugarcanes (Crouch, pedal steel player Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan, accordionist Jeff Taylor, guitarist and backing singer Jim Lauderdale, mandolinist Mike Compton and former Attraction Pete Thomas on drums) delighted a bookish New York City audience at their live taping of PBS’ "Live From the Artist’s Den."
He’s festooned his latest country-pop songs with words straight from Webster’s: "Gavotte, garrotes, cotillions and slow arabesques/Drum-rolls and farandoles were all made in jest," he crooned in "Slow Drag With Josephine." Mind you, this is the album’s silly love song.
"Stations of the Cross," a return to Katrina-drenched New Orleans, and "Bullets for the Newborn King," a tale of a Third World assassination, are dense with poetic, and often upsetting, imagery.
"Jimmie Standing in the Rain," the sad story of a down-and-out country singer, is elevated by the generosity of the detail we’re given: the Brilliantine glistening in the performer’s hair, the indifference of the dirty coal mining town, the "lonely sound of jingling spurs" as the act has fallen flat again.
Costello’s singing voice is an iron spoon, designed to ram lyrics down the throats of listeners. In an era when songwriters often duck the topical implications of their own verse, his specificity and his forcefulness are refreshing. His is an ideal voice for brutal rock, but when he’s turned the megaphone on American traditional music — as he has, off and on, for the past 30 years — the songs have sometimes wilted as if flowers in a hailstorm. On "National Ransom," Costello has turned to bluegrass singer Jim Lauderdale to add sweetening harmonies and to smooth out the rough edges of the eternal punk rocker’s performances.
At the NYPL, Costello seemed thrilled to be singing with Lauderdale, even referring to him as his co-writer, though the North Carolinian only has one credit on "National Ransom" ("I Lost You," the album’s most thematically conventional track). The Liverpool-born Costello has, over the past two decades, had to fight off an unfair rap for desultory engagement with American musical forms. Since setting punk rock aside, his albums have become stylistically varied; he’s recorded with Burt Bacharach, Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and jazz pianist Marian McPartland, just to name a few.
But for the past six years, Costello has been quite focused. "National Ransom" can be seen as the realization of compositional strategies first explored on 2004’s "The Delivery Man," a loose narrative about a drifter in the American South. "The River in Reverse," cut in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans with pianist Allen Toussaint, was another brave and rewarding foray into the Delta.
Costello and Burnett assembled their neo-bluegrass outfit for last year’s "Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane," an ambitious song cycle that attempted to draw connections between slavery, show business, colonialism and the prison-industrial complex. It was a nice try — nice enough that the Sugarcanes were called back for another attempt at the timeless American sound Costello seemed to be aiming for.
With "National Ransom," they’ve gotten it right. The group, augmented by strings and brass on "You Hung the Moon" and instant Costello classic "Church Underground," performs with genuine erudition; even when Costello sets a challenge, as he does on "Josephine," to play rock ’n’ roll as it might have been played in 1921, they demonstrate the historical imagination to pull it off.
His newfound dedication to historical fiction and topical verse has brought out the showman in Costello. Always mischievous, he’s taking delight at blurring the lines between country and pop, jazz and protest folk, and the past and the present. Onstage at the Bartos forum, the pop star wore an outfit that defied easy sartorial classification: his trademark thick black glasses, a beat-up (but stylish) hat, a plaid suit with horizontal stripes, and a tie with diagonal ones.
He could have been one of those fast-talking Depression-era guitar-slinging hucksters he seems to be channeling lately. He could have been the nerdiest member of the Rat Pack. Or he could have been a hipster from Williamsburg, here to enlighten the crowd with some old-fashioned declaiming.