There are artists who learn and grow and evolve over time, and there are those who seem to spring from the ground, fully formed. Place Elvis Costello in the latter class. You could stack up his albums in chronological order and shuffle the deck, and a newbie to Costello's oeuvre would be hard-pressed to figure out which constituted his rookie work and which are the products of a seasoned pro.
That is to say, aside from the obvious budget-minded aesthetics of his earliest stuff, the lyrical imagination, melodic invention and broad stylistic ambition of his work is consistent across his career, no matter what genre or creative partnership Costello is experimenting within. Exhibit A: the coincidental release of his neo-classical foray, II Sogno, and this edgy collaboration with his backing band, the Imposters. There can't be too many singer-songwriters with the moxie to bridge that musical gulf simultaneously.
Costello has spoken of a narrative thread running through The Delivery Man, but if it's there, it's a very fine thread indeed. A lack of linear coherence is not required to appreciate the album's better moments, and Costello is at his best when he clenches his teeth and rails at the modern world's information overload, as on the neo-New Orleans funk of "Monkey To Man" and the seething "Bedlam." "Either Side Of The Same Town" respectfully mines the same vein of betrayal and heartache as the Dan Penn/Chips Moman cheating classic "Dark End Of The Street" (with the expected diminished returns).
Unlike, say, the dense, left field arrangements of Spike (1989) or Imperial Bedroom (1982), Costello here has gone back to the musical equivalent of the primary colors — bass, drums, guitar, keyboards. Occasionally, there's some steel guitar ("Country Darkness") or the supporting voice of a certified country siren (Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams drop by to lend voice, the latter on a rousing standout titled "There's A Story In Your Voice").
While The Delivery Man has been branded with the (alt) country stamp, it possesses neither the reverence of Almost Blue (1981) nor the hallowed, stripped-down grace of King Of America (1986). But this is back-to-basics stuff, and anyone pining for the energy and intensity of Costello's early work will find some satisfaction here.