Elvis Costello has a bad case of musical ADD. In just the last decade - less than a third of his feverish career - Costello's attention has skidded from art song ("For The Stars") to jazz balladry ("North") to old time country ("The Delivery Man") to a classical score ("Il Sogno") to New Orleans soul ("The River In Reverse") to Los Angeles garage rock ("Momofuko") to something approaching the Nashville mainstream ("Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane").
By that standard, Costello's latest looks like it's stuck in a rut. It's produced by the same man who did his last one (the well-employed T-Bone Burnett), features work by the same visual artist on its cover, and offers many call-backs in its supporting cast. Liberally, it mingles the previous CD's Sugarcanes with players from Costello's touring band, The Imposters.
But that only measures the CD's surface. "National Ransom" turns out to be one of this busy star's most fidgety albums to date. Once again, it's set deep in the heart of America, but it's a vision of the place that blithely tosses together sounds from various eras and areas. Along the way, it wanders across psychedelic rock, commercial country, Appalachian ballads, American standards, and jazz that dates from the first half of the last century.
Costello eagerly lunges into the confusion right in the title track. It places a hipster's fuzz-toned guitar in one speaker and a country pedal steel in the other. Similarly, "Church Underground" proposes a meeting between wan Nashville balladry and the whimsical sound of British Music Hall.
Like some recent Dylan's work, there's a yen for the jazzy ballads of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Songs "A Voice In The Dark" or "A Slow Drag With Josephine" could be sung by Bing Crosby, if in a cowboy hat. At the same time, Costello's rocking Imposters band pokes through every so often with a farfisa organ and a charged riff. While the result could make the album seem broad-minded, it ends up feeling diffuse.
It's not just all the lurching in the music that can overwhelm. So can the lyrics. Costello set the songs in various time frames, most of them nearly a century old. That "Josephine" song takes place in 1921. A tale about a down-on-his-luck cowboy singer ("Jimmie Standing In The Rain") claims 1937 as its time frame. And while "One Bell Ringing" may sound like one of Joni Mitchell's least important songs from the ‘80s, it occurs in 2007. I know this only because the liner notes say so. Otherwise, you might not have a clue.
The production blurs things further. It's fuzzy and indifferent.
Naturally, any product from the churning brains of Costello has intelligence and craft on its side. But "National Ransom" lacks his usual focus and drive. It also shows an unwillingness to edit. Like Woody Allen, Costello seems determined to release product no matter what. He has put out 33 albums in as many years. Maybe it's finally time he took a vacation.