Over the past decade and a half, the man who calls himself Elvis Costello has proudly displayed a musical restlessness that borders on promiscuity: In between "proper" albums like Brutal Youth and When I Was Cruel, he has collaborated with an array of musicians whose own releases are rarely shelved in the rock section of your local record store. Often these pairings are one-album stands, as with The Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters), Anne Sofie Von Otter (For the Stars), or smoky barroom jazz (North). Only occasionally has Costello allowed a collaboration to blossom into a creative relationship. He's recorded two records with Burt Bacharach (Painted from Memory and The Sweetest Punch, with Bill Frisell), and laid a foundation for continued collaborative songwriting with his wife, Diana Krall.
There is, admittedly, an integrity to this ambitious quest: After more than 25 years, Costello's still trying to rouse some rabble, albeit through different means and towards different ends than on early albums like My Aim Is True and This Year's Model. On one hand, he's obviously following his own muse as he avoids the inevitable standards album that always seems to signals the creative death of aging stars like Rod Stewart and Cyndi Lauper (though he did cover Cole Porter earlier this year on the DeLovely soundtrack), and aside from a few missteps, he's succeeded in crafting a very diverse catalog. On the other, there's a hint of insecurity in Costello's ramblin' ways — what, in relationship-speak, might be called a fear of commitment.
The Delivery Man presents itself as a proper follow-up to 2002's When I Was Cruel (and its odds-and-ends companion Cruel Smile), as an album in the vein of Almost Blue or King of America. Regardless of its rock sound and the presence of his band, The Imposters, The Delivery Man is more or less just another collaboration — the particulars of its creation are emphasized over its music. This time, however, Costello's collaborator is a place rather than a person. For The Delivery Man, he and The Imposters traveled to Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Mississippi — not just the middle of the Delta but also directly between the birthplace and deathplace of Costello's namesake: Tupelo and Memphis. And though the disc began life as a concept album about a Southern delivery man seducing his female customers, Costello willfully worked away from that idea as the project progressed, and little of those origins remain in the final product, save the album title and the dilapidated truck on the album cover.
Not that Costello has made an album of Delta blues or Sun Studio rockabilly: The Delivery Man is his idea of Southern music, a blend of pedal steel-drenched country and Dusty in Memphis professionalism. But it sounds best when it's at its most casual. The Imposters flex their muscles on barnburners like "Bedlam" and "Needle Time," proving themselves a dynamic band — fierce but always controlled, musically inventive but never slick. While bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas kick up dust on the opener, "Button My Lip," Steve Nieve sneaks in a piano line from West Side Story, offsetting the rock rhythms with a self-consciously referential melody. Likewise, Costello's guest musicians add a distinctly Southern flair to the proceedings. Emmylou Harris sings on "Nothing Clings Like Ivy" and "Heart-Shaped Bruise," but Costello's best foil is Lucinda Williams, whose throaty, punkish snarl on "There's a Story in Your Voice" is a dynamic match for The Imposters' barroom ruckus, which only underscores how smooth and rehearsed Costello's own vocals sound.
It's clear what The Imposters got out of this sojourn down South — they sound like they're truly enjoying themselves — but less so what Costello did. For starters, it sounds like he overpacked for the trip, toting along the polished lyrics and pristine melodies that sound so much more at home in New York. This can make for some dramatic juxtapositions of traditions, as on "Country Darkness," but often, Costello just sounds prissy and uptight in these more relaxed environs. Even his stuttering delivery on "Button My Lip" feels rehearsed and academic, as though he hasn't fully committed himself to the spirit of the endeavor.
If The Delivery Man isn't enough of a departure for Costello, the classical Il Sogno, released simultaneously, at first sounds like perhaps too much of one: It's the score to a ballet adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, commissioned by the Italian troupe Aterballetto and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. With such a highfalutin' pedigree, it could be a parody of rock-star respectability, right down to the self-serious, auratic Deutsche Grammophon album cover and the "Mystery Dance" joke that's hidden in there somewhere. While there's something potentially zany about someone like Costello scoring a ballet, it seems too easy to decry a rock musician's pretensions to serious art. On some level, it makes sense to allow seasoned, adventurous rockers this kind of opportunity.
So maybe it's Costello who's having the last laugh at rock critics who find themselves suddenly out of their element reviewing a "classical" album and who must struggle to form some sort of opinion that reads as more informed than "it sounds like the hunchbacked love child of Copeland and Bernstein robbing Puccini's grave for leftover libretti," or, "It put me to sleep." However, Costello is still Costello (or at least still Declan MacManus), so there are passages that sound more rock- and jazz-informed, like "Oberon and Titania" and "Puck 2." The saxophones and drum sets create a jazzy, North-ern tone that sits comfortably among the more traditional orchestration. While this approach does break the score's airiness with some earthier sounds, it's still a risky decision that doesn't entirely pay off, and sometimes carries a whiff of novelty. Ultimately, on Il Sogno — as on The Delivery Man — Costello seems like a musical tourist, sending out snapshot postcards from exotic locales but never making his home there.