When we last caught up with Elvis Costello, he had issued North, easily the lamest album of his long, prolific career. Costello's output has been erratic and excessively fussy for a good 15 years now, but with just enough odd strokes of genius ("London's Brilliant Parade," "Painted From Memory") to keep diehards from writing him off. But North was not merely an enervating, ballad-heavy song cycle (allegedly inspired by the dissolution of Costello's second marriage); it was the culmination of everything that had gone wrong with Costello's work since he'd learned to notate music, confusing dreariness for gravity and puffed-up vocal bombast for soul. The angry young Costello of 1978 would have taken apart this self-important blowhard.
With all that in mind, it's a minor miracle that Costello's new rock album, The Delivery Man (he simultaneously released the orchestral Il Sogno) is a first-rate return to form. Recorded in Mississippi, the album finds Costello following up on the implications of "The Scarlet Tide," his contribution to the Civil War epic, Cold Mountain. It assimilates Deep South country and R&B with an ease that he's only sporadically attained before. By comparison, 1980's Stax homage, Get Happy — for all of its songwriting brilliance — was stylized and British brittle. The following year, Costello's Nashville covers project, Almost Blue, made him sound like the dilettante he never was.
Here, on the moody "Country Darkness," or the heartbreak ballad "Either Side of the Same Town," he's a modern-day Dan Penn, effortlessly blending the best of the South's white and black traditions. "Monkey To Man" finds him in gloriously acerbic form, dissecting the evils of evolution from a primate's perspective. "Bedlam" is the kind of tribal avant-funk he's been shooting for ever since 1991's "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," but this time he nails it.
The title track is the real ace: a cryptic but riveting account of a mystery man ("in a certain light he looked like Elvis / in a certain way he seemed like Jesus"), it rolls together blues mythology, the Bible, and hints of Flannery O'Connor in a song that has no precedent in the Costello catalog. Like the song's subject, Costello — for the first time in too many years — delivers the goods.