San Francisco Chronicle, September 21, 2004

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Elvis Costello's 'Delivery Man' has the goods

Joel Selvin

Elvis Costello apparently needs the challenges.

He follows last year's North, an ambition collection of polished art songs undoubtedly inspired by his marriage to jazzy chanteuse Diana Krall, with not just another batch of surly rock songs but also the simultaneous release of his first orchestral composition, Il Sogno, and an oblique concept album of stripped-down rock songs called The Delivery Man.

Recorded in Oxford, Miss., with his three-man band of longtime collaborators, the Imposters, The Delivery Man is the kind of smart, literate rock his fans have come to expect from Costello, whose artistic collaborations have ranged from the classical Brodsky Quartet to pop maestro Burt Bacharach.

Picking up where he and the Imposters left off on the 2002 release When I Was Cruel, the new album loosely concerns the lives of three female characters. Nashville renegades Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams were drafted to give his characters voices. Also contributing to The Delivery Man is pedal steel guitarist John McFee — a former member of Bay Area bands the Doobie Brothers and Clover — who played on Costello's 1977 debut, My Aim Is True.

Costello never makes it easy. He opens the set with an abrasive, dissonant rant, "Button My Lip," that channels James Brown but is hardly the kind of upbeat, sunny track usually selected to open albums. He breaks up his obscure narrative with two side steps, "Bedlam," which juxtaposes the Nativity story with the modern-day Middle East, and "Monkey to Man," a rocking update of the 1954 Dave Bartholomew take on the theory of evolution, "The Monkey," where the singer speaks in the voices of the monkeys.

Costello wraps his intensely observed portraits in sturdy, tense and spare rock arrangements, recorded largely without effects, and more than capably performed by drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Davey Faragher. His singing has become so expert over the years that he fearlessly tackles daring passages as confidently as he whispers his way through the gentle parts.

His craftsmanship rings through every corner of the 13-song set. If the underlying narrative concept of the album remains somewhat obscure, the individual songs stand powerfully on their own. Whether it's the Southern twang of "There's a Story in Your Voice" (with Williams), the Dylanesque sneer of "Needle Time" or the baroque pop of "The Name of This Thing Is Not Love," Costello is telling his own story, in his own voice. It is a personal style that he has assiduously developed over more than 27 albums and that he continues to refine on the stark and gripping The Delivery Man.

© 2004 San Francisco Chronicle

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San Francisco Chronicle, September 21, 2004

Joel Selvin reviews The Delivery Man.

Joshua Kosman reviews Il Sogno.


The Delivery Man album cover.jpgIl Sogno album cover.jpg

Costello dreams up 'Midsummer' magic

Elvis Costello / Il Sogno

Joshua Kosman

No rock musician can aspire to serious auteur status these days, it seems, without undertaking a big classical composition — oratorio, opera, symphony, what have you. The only catch is that most of them haven't a clue how to go about it.

Elvis Costello does.

Il Sogno ("The Dream"), an evening-length ballet score based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is the one product of this odd recent trend that's actually worth the staff paper it's written on.

This is no mere exercise in reverse slumming. It's an expansive, colorful and often striking creation, done with all the imaginative flair and restless precision of Costello's rock efforts. And on the Deutsche Grammophon recording that hits stores today, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, the various episodes of Costello's score sparkle and shine like the pages of a glossily illustrated book of fairy tales.

Il Sogno premiered in Bologna in 2000 with choreography by Mauro Bigonzetti, but it wasn't until last year that Costello — evidently with an assist from Thomas — reworked the score into a stand-alone concert piece, introduced in July at a multipronged Costellofest at New York's Lincoln Center.

As with any concert suite derived from a ballet score, the result is episodic, a loosely connected series of vignettes designed to illustrate various characters and incidents in the theatrical scenario. And although it helps to know which music corresponds to what, Costello's melodic and instrumental ingenuity are enough to let the work stand alone.

The range of stylistic references is broad, extending from bouncy or lushly scored orchestral episodes a la Prokofiev (the feel of the thing, if not the musical specifics, often brings Romeo and Juliet to mind) to the brassy blare of Bernstein's Broadway writing. In a handful of numbers, Costello lays down a groove and then hands the reins to soprano saxophonist John Harle, whose urgent, squawky improvisations work alchemy with simple materials.

The best of Costello's numbers do just what they're meant to do by conjuring up a vivid image of their subjects — a spare, elusive flutter for Puck or a magical vibraphone-led lullaby for Titania and Bottom's enchanted sleep. Others cram too much disparate material into a single segment.

What's most striking, though, is Costello's command of the orchestra. Il Sogno alternates between richly idiomatic traditional sonorities and skillful grafts from elsewhere, including a jazz band and the tinkly, percussive sound of the cimbalom. If this is really just scoring by ear, Costello's untutored facility is prodigious.

But then, it always has been. From the beginning of his career, Costello has been a consummate classicist, less interested in innovation than in mastering and refining an ever-wider range of musical languages — from punk rock to country, from pop ballads to art songs. There was no reason to expect anything less from him in this new arena.


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