New wave rocker Elvis Costello long has harbored a deep love for country music. In spite of a bad case of the mumps last spring, he struggled through a Home Box Office taping of a show dedicated to his idol, George Jones. "I would have gotten out of my deathbed for this," muttered Costello as his fans yelled for his popular rock songs, "From a Whisper to a Scream" and "Miracle Man." The rock fans in the audience were more than a little surprised when Costello responded with a heartfelt rendition of the country song "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down."
Almost Blue represents the realization of a dream for Costello. On this album he sings a dozen of his favorite country songs. Unfortunately for many country music fans, this album will be a lot less fun to listen to than it was for Costello to make.
Singing has never been Costello's strongest attribute and on Almost Blue he sings songs made famous by some of the finest singers in country music. On one level, then, Costello's garbled versions of songs like "Sweet Dreams," previously recorded by such exquisite vocalists as Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris, can only be termed laughable.
On another level, though, Costello's vocals can be appreciated as emotional, original interpretations of some classic songs. After all, technical proficiency has never been as important in country music as pure feeling, and Costello definitely puts his heart and soul into this music.
It comes as no surprise that the two semi-rock songs on the album, "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" and "Honey Hush" are the most instantly likeable. Costello is primarily a rock singer, and he belts out these numbers with plenty of sass and energy. The sarcastic edge in his voice is especially effective on "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" as it gives the song an extra dose of bitterness.
Costello succeeds in a less obvious way on some of the more well-worn ballads. Although at first it is easy to shrug off his less-than-pretty renditions or such numbers as "A Good Year for the Roses" and "Too Far Gone," the very roughness of his singing makes one listen with new ears to these familiar tunes. Suddenly, one is hearing these songs for the first time again, and one is struck anew by the emotional impact of the lyrics.
Costello's choice of Nashville super-producer Billy Sherrill, however, proves to be a mistake. Sherrill's smooth-as-silk production undermines the bite and force of Costello's singing. Costello would have done better to have stuck with his regular producer, Nick Lowe, whose bash-it-out-and-tart-it-up philosophy complements Costello's rough and ready vocals better than Sherrill's strings and background choirs.
Almost Blue is not entirely successful, but it's never dull, which is more than can be said of much of the music-by-numbers that is cranked out of Nashville with such regularity. Costello's real forte is as a songwriter, not as a singer. He already has written one great country song in "Stranger in the. House" and two songs, "Motel Matches" and Different Finger," with enough country overtones to score in today's eclectic country market. An album of original country songs by Elvis Costello would be a record that would make country music sit up and take notice.