With forays into jazz, blues, classical and country in his extensive catalog, Elvis Costello's musical scope is positively elastic. Yet somehow the stretching never seems that strenuous.
That's certainly the case on The Delivery Man, an intense collection that wraps complex observations on the human condition around a musical backdrop of rootsy Americana. His outrageously ambitious creative reach is reflected in the fact that the country-flavored album arrives on the same day as Il Sogno, a ballet score that marks his first full-length orchestral composition.
At the least, Costello's excursions are always characterized by a reverent understanding that signifies intellectual appreciation. That has been evident on everything from his collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter to North, his 2003 album of moody piano jazz.
At his best, a superlative that would apply to the work on The Delivery Man, Costello pulls together enough inspirational threads to yield something transcendent. It would be an injustice to call this merely an experiment.
The tapestry of The Delivery Man was constructed from a fortuitous combination of influences. The character in the title track, expanded from a reference in a song Costello once wrote for Johnny Cash, is a convicted killer who alternately sparks fear, lust and devotion in the minds of three small-town Southern women.
"In a certain light, he looked like Elvis," Costello sings in title song's bluesy exposition. "In a certain way, he feels like Jesus. Everyone dreams of him just as they can, but he's only the humble delivery man."
In a certain way, these 13 songs bear a stylized resemblance to Sun Records-era Elvis. That reflects the one-take, everyone-in-the-same-room approach at Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Miss., where Costello's rhythm section — drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher — had recorded with blues icon Buddy Guy.
Nowhere is the wonderfully low-tech sound better than on "Monkey to Man," a rockabilly update of Dave Bartholomew's twisted 1954 take on evolution recorded down the road in Clarksdale, Miss. It's the album's most infectious track, with its percolating rhythms and enticing organ.
Not that the rest of the album is subdued. North this isn't.
The opening "Button My Lip" is raucous and intense, as Costello spits out the story of a man on the verge of a crime. The dissonant piano pounding, frantic bass and swirling background noise foretells the gathering storm. Still, things never spiral into excess.
The frenzy is followed by "Country Darkness," a sophisticated country ballad that better showcases the album's overall sound. Lyrically, it's a tale of weary yearning:
"She daydreams of forbidden sins. There must be something more than the prison she's living in. The one with the open door."
The song's country leanings are extended on "There's a Story in Your Voice," a duet with Lucinda Williams powered by a deep, twangy Telecaster lead. With her alto sounding more syrupy than ever next to Costello's blunt delivery, Williams is an inspired duet choice.
So is Emmylou Harris, who adds distinctive high harmonies on "Heart Shaped Bruise," a song that the pair refined during the "Concert for a Landmine-free World" tour a few years back. With its keening steel guitar and stately tempo, it's pleasantly reminiscent of "Love Hurts," Harris' beautiful collaboration with Gram Parsons.
"What more is there to take from me," the chorus asks. "There's nothing else to give you, dear. there's nothing more that I can lose, except this heart shaped bruise."
Costello closes the song with another Harris duet on a familiar song, a new version of "The Scarlet Tide," the Oscar-nominated song Costello co-wrote with T-Bone Burnett for Cold Mountain. With its solitary ukelele accompaniment, it sounds like an outtake from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Yet because Costello invests so much in the music, nothing on The Delivery Man could be described as imitation.