I really wish it weren't the case, but I'd have to file the new record by Elvis Costello under "For Completists Only" (of which I'm sure there many when it comes to Elvis Costello fans). If you heard his 2009 record, Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, a journey that explored the musical idioms generally associated with the Americana genre, you know exactly what you're getting yourself into with National Ransom — only it's not as nearly as interesting (or fun) the second time around. If you didn't hear Secret, I'd suggest tracking it down and stopping with it, whether you like it or not.
National Ransom is, to put it bluntly, really pretty boring. That hurts me to say because I'm an admirer of Elvis, with a deep love for his first few records and great respect for him as an artist, even though I'm not a completist and have had an off-and-on relationship with his music over the past two decades.
View National Ransom as a sequel to Secrets, if you will. Once again, Elvis got together with super-producer T Bone Burnett and cranked out a disc in about 10 days' time. Once again, there are tons of guest stars, including Vince Gill, Leon Russell, Buddy Miller, Marc Ribot (under-used, I might add), as well as Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve from The Attractions.
There's really not a damn thing wrong with Elvis' ability to write great lyrics, as he exhibits on National Ransom, telling evocative stories of people and places in this kind-of travelogue record. His singing voice is mostly in fine form, especially when he doesn't try to sound like the Elvis of old. It's then that he just sort of sounds like an old Elvis. No, the problem here is the flatness of the songs. There's very little in terms of melody or performance that stands out, and with Burnett's propensity for a dry, natural sound, this record loses steam quick. The dynamics are missing — and with a record that is 16 songs(!) and an hour-long, it turns out to be a dull listening experience.
Like I said, if you're a Elvis Costello superfan, you probably have this ordered. If you're on the fence, check out Secrets and pass on National Ransom.