Most of Elvis Costello's records for the past 15 years have been side projects of one kind or another-- attempts to show how very broad his range is that mostly demonstrate the opposite. He's released jazz records, classical records, a soundtrack or two, collaborations with New Orleans R&B overlord Allen Toussaint and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. And every few years, at least when he's not threatening to quit recording, he gets together with his actual rock band-- the Attractions or their current iteration, the Imposters-- and does what he's genuinely brilliant at.
Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is not one of those rock-band albums. Costello recorded it in Nashville, backed up by an acoustic string-band including Jim Lauderdale, who sings harmonies on most of it, and the estimable dobro player Jerry Douglas. The most promising name in the credits, though, is producer T-Bone Burnett, who worked with Costello on 1986's King of America (as well as a nifty 1985 single credited to the Coward Brothers). King was a focused, fire-spitting album: a seething riposte to American culture and a conflicted love letter to American music.
The new record is no King: It's a gummy mishmash, an overambitious collection of table scraps and leftovers. (The forced wordplay of the title is the first sign that it's trying to cover too much ground.) There are remakes of a couple of songs that have been kicking around the Costello repertoire for ages ("Complicated Shadows" and "Hidden Shame", both of which previously turned up on the expanded version of All This Useless Beauty); there are a handful of fussy arias salvaged from a never-finished opera about Hans Christian Andersen and Jenny Lind, and a song dropped from 2004's The Delivery Man. There's a songwriting collaboration with Loretta Lynn, and two more with Burnett. One of the latter, a pastiche of Good Old Boys-era Randy Newman called "Sulphur to Sugarcane", is the closest thing to a keeper here (and the song from the album that Costello's been playing live the most), although it'd probably be more striking at three minutes than six. The version of the old Bing Crosby/Patti Page standard "Changing Partners" that closes the album is the most sensitive performance on it-- Costello's always had a great ear for covers. It's also a simpler, better-crafted song than any of his originals here.