Elvis Costello goes country? Yup. Just listen to his latest album, Almost Blue. Recorded in Nashville in only eleven days, Almost Blue contains twelve cover versions of songs written by country artists such as Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones and others. With John McFee playing lead guitar and pedal steel, Elvis and the Attractions have produced another interesting and novel chapter in their already powerful and prolific careers.
When comparing his latest album, released only last week, to those that have come before it, Elvis' most recent musical offering is not that much of a surprise. The voice is unmistakably Elvis and he Is at his moodiest. He has already given indications of an inclination toward country music on such tracks as "Different Finger" on Trust and "Stranger in The House" on Taking Liberties. One song off the latest album, "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)," is even fast like something off Get Happy!! but the pedal steel serves as a constant reminder that this album is much different from any that have come before.
Absent on almost every track is the organ used extensively on such albums as This Year's Model and Armed Forces. Its presence in the background of "Honey Hush" gives that song a sound most like the Elvis of that earlier period. "I'm Your Toy" is the song in which the pedal steel is the least noticeable For this reason, it too is reminiscent of the old Elvis. Even the lyric of "I'm Your Toy" sounds as if Elvis might have written them himself ("You may be sweet and nice / That won't keep you warm at night / 'Cause I'm the one that taught you how / To do the things you're doing now").
It is, however, much easier to find differences rather than similarities between this album and the others. Since Elvis did not write any of the songs on the album, the listener will not find the usual bitter criticism or cryptic verse to which he has become accustomed to hearing. Instead, he will find the usual country/western fare: songs about lost women and booze, sung by a most pensive cowboy.
The Attractions have certainly had more challenging work to do and Nashville is filled with bands that could have backed Elvis with the same amount of competence and to the some effect. Their performance is flawless but unmarked by any great high point. All the songs come off sounding very much country and very much the same. Without outstanding lyrics or musicianship, one wonders if there is anything at all to recommend this record.
Any one of the songs, if released alone, would have become an interesting novelty to those who listen to Elvis Costello's music. What has been released is a whole album of novelties, interesting and enjoyable to those who find Elvis' vocal talents enough to draw their attention to this work. Unlike Taking Liberties, which failed because it was an unguided anthology of old Elvis B-sides, Almost Blue is an album Elvis most definitely wanted to release and one that has a definite direction.
Elvis' latest incarnation, that of the lovelorn cowboy, carries him well through these twelve songs. Through this guise he is able to deliver such gems as the sad and touching "How Much I Lied." He is playing a game of pretend with us and with himself. The very strange-looking young man on the cover of My Aim Is True couldn't be the same one singing the honky-tonk "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down"! Instead, the image of the new Elvis seems much closer to the inside jacket of the album Trust where Elvis is glancing sideways at the camera with a look of mock sophistication. Which is the real Elvis? This question remains unanswered.
The main interest in the album, then, is to hear Elvis in his new persona. All in all, the songs themselves are not bad, but any lasting value depends on whether or not Almost Blue remains a novelty for long. That, in turn, depends on Elvis, what he wants his image to be and what kind of music he chooses to play.