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 Farragher. 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.