"Warning!" shouts the sticker that's stuck on the cover that covers the record that Elvis made in Nashville. "This album contains country & western music and may produce radical reaction in narrow-minded-people."
Country 'n' western — phew! It's one small step sideways in Costello's career, perhaps, at least where his song writing goes (though not his singing). But Almost Blue, these 12 interpretations of other people's work, is a richly satisfying sidestep. It has the feel of being both a homage and a holiday... so enjoy it, maybe get enlightened, and let's watch how the experience inspires the man's own creative muse when next they get back together.
Country music, mind, has never been too far below the surface in the Costello catalogue — like his own "Stranger In The House" and in the feel of nearly all his more mournful, reflective material. For anybody true to their Liverpool-Irish roots, it could barely be otherwise: that culture's steeped in it, and always will be.
The tone of Almost Blue's treatments is respectful, therefore, but never slavish. It's a contemporary album, and it's an Attractions album; producer-Billy Sherrill seems to have ensured that the set's authenticity rests with content, not with the form. The one major concession to trad sound is the addition to the band of guitarist John McFee, who supplies a lot of sad, sweet pedal steel.
There's no perversion of the songs' intentions, either. It might be the sophisticated view that country is trite, and maudlin and sentimental. But Elvis still plays it straight. The easy option of exploiting the coy, camp and kitsch angles — which would overcome most English rock artists — isn't entertained for a moment. Costello and company cut through the layers of smart prejudice to find the music's enduring values: its sly humour, its lyrical craftsmanship (more echoes of EC's own approach), its melancholy dignity.
Down to detail. Side one opens with a brash rock work-out, in the Rockpile vein, "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?": it's the noise of a group enjoying itself, and not to the exclusion of our enjoyment. The remainder of the side is calmer — like "Success" (“has made a failure of our home”), Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," and the beautiful "Brown To Blue," all about the divorce that "changed your name from Brown to Jones / And mine from Brown to Blue...". If you've just opened a beer, stand by to cry into it.
Flip across and there's the year's best-deserved hit, "Good Year For The Roses," a poignant George Jones lip-trembler. The easy-rocking "Sittin' And Thinkin'," "Colour Of The Blues" (yep, that colour again) and Billy Sherrill's "Too Far Gone" lead up to the pumping beat of the Jerry Lee/Joe Turner number "Honey Hush," then finally, "How Much I Lied" — more of that grief inhibited by the stern necessity for manly appearances.
If you can find it in your moralistic modern heart to forgive the music's frequent lapses of character — the fatal tendency to take consolation in booze, the frankly reactionary sexist stereotyping (She hasn't made the bed! Our relationship's on the rocks!) — you'll be rewarded by the very-human realism of country's emotional power. The tunes are lovely as well.
Seek out the best, bury the rest. Let Almost Blue be your primer, and Elvis Costello your guide. You know something? This is the kind of country where a man could build himself a home.