Elvis Costello just can't be pinned down.
After mingling blues and atmospheric country on The Delivery Man, Costello has morphed into a Frank Sinatra, of sorts, on the new My Flame Burns Blue (in stores Tuesday).
The album was recorded live with a 52-piece jazz orchestra in the summer of 2004 at the North Sea Jazz Festival, and it comes with a bonus disc of excerpts from Costello's Il Sogno ballet suite.
When I Was Cruel, this isn't. Fortunately, the exuberant presence of the Metropole Orkest ensures that Costello's jazz foray isn't as relentlessly subdued as the piano ballads of North. At different moments, Costello's blue flame ranges from fiery hot to warm and lovely.
It's a testament to Costello's ambition that the album opens with an adaptation of a Charles Mingus number, "Hora Decubitus," which is embellished by Costello's lyrics. He also adds words to the Billy Strayhorn-penned title track, which takes some audacity indeed.
The results, however, are impressive enough to justify the risk. "Hora Decubitus" bounds between intensely rhythmic interludes and swaggering, big-band explosions with majestic style. Strayhorn's song is a moodier ballad that evolves from its lonely saxophone introduction into Costello's weary last-call singing.
Sandwiched among the reverent reinventions is the occasional dash of rock 'n' roll nostalgia (Dave Bartholomew's jump-jive "That's How You Got Killed Before") and a few twists on Costello hits.
On "Watching the Detectives," for instance, the hard syncopated beat of the original is sacrificed in favor of a splashy arrangement that sounds more like a lost Nelson Riddle track or the theme for an MGM musical.
It's followed by the closing "God Give Me Strength," a bittersweet ballad leavened by the distinctive melodic touch of Burt Bacharach.
Costello, who also has finished work on a new album with New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint, seems to thrive on such collaborations. That's the case on My Flame Burns Blue, anyway.
It won't make you want to toss My Aim Is True, but if a guy has to grow older, this is a graceful way to do it.