What is there to say about Elvis Costello that hasn't already been said? For over 30 years, critical wits have described him in various too-clever ways; he's been the Angry Young Man, Buddy Holly on Acid and the Bearded Bard, laughable depictions that may have made for good press but still say very little about the musician or his music. His discography has likewise made a mockery of such depictions; while Costello's earliest albums tentatively placed him as a post-punker whose folk tendencies were obscured by his aggressive vocal delivery and the Attractions' manic pace, his last several albums, particularly The Delivery Man and Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, have incorporated elements of jazz, country and Americana.
So it's a guess as to what side of Costello will dominate each new album; during the lead-up to listening to National Ransom, one of Spectrum Culture's writers jokingly asked if I thought it would be Rocker Costello or Wimpy-Crooner Costello. It's actually a bit of both, though the rocking isn't as hard as it could be and the crooning isn't all that wussy. Recorded quickly and including songs that have been part of Costello's recent live shows, Ransom was produced by frequent cohort and former Coward Brother T-Bone Burnett. Featuring contributions from backing bands the Imposters and the Sugarcanes, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller, Leon Russell, Vince Gill and formerly estranged bassist Bruce Thomas (wait, never mind), the album might be Costello's most musically varied, as it genre-jumps like an ADD-addled kid.
It's a scattershot approach that mostly works well. The self-titled album opener and "Five Small Words" are classic Costello rock songs, though the equally up-tempo "The Spell That You Cast" sounds to me like a bad Brutal Youth outtake; as fun as the song is, it tends to feel every bit as slight as something like "Playboy to a Man" or "Luxembourg." There are hints of jazz in "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," a song that contains some of the album's best lines ("forgotten man / Indifferent nation") and, with its references to "slow coaches rolling o'er the moor" and a cowboy singer "mild and bitter from tuberculosis," is presumably about Jimmie Rodgers. Steel guitar features prominently on "I Lost You," "That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving" and "Dr. Watson, I Presume," a trio of solid songs that owe a debt to Americana/country every bit as much as Almost Blue did before them. Costello was always a folk singer of sorts at heart – a fact obscured by his pissed-off persona, surly disposition and infamous fixation with exacting revenge through his lyrics – so it's fitting that unadorned and simply-arranged songs like "All These Strangers" and "Bullets for the New-Born King" offer National Ransom's most enduring moments. An acoustic assassin's lament that consists of only Costello and acoustic guitar, "Bullets" interweaves history and geography and contains some of the album's most evocative imagery and will likely age better than some of the album's genre-specific tracks.
Like most Costello albums, the writing is exceptional, with characters like a stage-door Josephine, charlatans and princes, privateers and brigands, a double-agent girl and disgraced priest heading for some unnamed border flittering in and out of these songs. Costello's occasional bouts of verbosity sometimes rear their wordy heads, and shades of North unfortunately creep in on "You Hung the Moon," a song about a dead soldier that's ultimately wrecked by Costello's exaggeratedly theatrical vocals and strings that are laid on pretty thick, but these spots are rare. If National Ransom was a debut album from an indie band with a bizarre name we'd all say it lacks focus and lives too much in the past. But with Costello such absence of uniformity somehow works, and his latest album again confirms that he's simply an expert musician who damn well knows what he's doing, witty critical characterizations be damned.