Perhaps enough time has gone by for a belated review to take a calm and studied view of Almost Blue, known far and wide as "Elvis Costello's country album." Is this album really such a monstrosity — some sort of hideous musical skeleton in the closet — or is it simply a bit of self-indulgence by a composer who should have known better?
The story behind the album is in itself very interesting. On last year's Trust, Elvis made a definite move toward the mass market. Now, with 'accessibility' seemingly the watchword of his career, Elvis turns about and releases an album divorced from his popularity that neglects his greatest strength, songwriting.
One has to ask, "What gives?"
Actually, it isn't that hard to figure out. Elvis has long admitted that he is a fan of country music, and has included country songs on his albums before. Perhaps it is exactly because he is so close to commercial success that he feels he can put out his country album. In the past he has shown little desire to help market his own product, and now that he can get away with a tribute to his musical roots it is hardly surprising that he disregards marketability.
As if to further distance himself, the album itself starts off with what is basically a fake. Hank William's standby, "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do," is here treated as a rave-up. Double-tracked vocally with ringing, distorted guitars, the song gives lie to the album; the listener wonders if this is going to be a rock send-up album.
It doesn't take long before that impression is lost. The very next song, "Sweet Dreams," is a lush, full Nashville product. Elvis croons through the song, a sad lament of lost love. Here is the problem the album presents for Elvis: how seriously will his listeners take him? As another of rock's angry young men, Elvis made his mark with wit and sarcastic irony, and now he is in different waters - the heartfelt sadness of country music. Here, his creditability isn't merely questioned, it's assailed.
In a later song, "Too Far Gone," Elvis again runs up against this barrier. These songs are simply too hokey to stand on their own. It takes a tremendous singer to carry the song, to persuade the listener not to question the song but instead to be swept away by the atmosphere. At the low points of the album, most notably the two songs mentioned, Elvis fails to do this. He hits all the right accents, but we are simply too aware that it is Costello singing country. Perhaps the crossover is simply impossible.
On the other hand, Elvis does do well with the other face of country. On the barrelhouse rocking song "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" Elvis delivers a lively, jumping song well augmented by some neat piano flourishes. Likewise, "Brown to Blue" comes off well as a basically silly song. The song, a divorce song, is almost a parody of country music, and Elvis sings it accordingly.
However, the smirk that would kill the other songs is not present here. He is not mocking the song or the genre, but including the listener in the joke the song is telling.
It would be wrong to give the idea that this album is a complete loss as far as sincerity goes. Although Elvis' personality comes through too strongly for him to get away with the straight country songs, on the songs where is he not aping the country style works very well.
On "A Good Year for the Roses" he delivers on characterization. Here he sings of a broken marriage, and, although the song is almost humourously maudlin, the image is believeable and touching. Through the song, one can picture Elvis sitting on the porch of his little GI Bill house, looking at the empty carport, feeling worthless and alone and not able to think about anything but how much the grass needs to be cut.
For an album where he did not write a single song, it often comes surprisingly close to his styles and moods. The resemblance is closest on the two Gram Parsons songs. Elvis, from his earliest days, said that his musical idol was no one in the range from Presley to Johnny Rotten, but rather this unreknown composer. "I'm Your Toy (Hot Burrito No.1)," showing Elvis plangently devoting himself to a girl who mistreats him, is not very exceptional, but the song that closes the album, "How Much I Lied," is tremendous.
A very fine arrangement of the song — in notes he says it went in almost one take — is supported by a beautiful, delicate piano line over which Elvis sadly confesses his misdeeds. "To take a chance on losing you / is such a silly thing to do / The chance I might wake up to find you gone / Blue, so blue / My life is burning blue / Any brighter flame would be a lie / Blue, so blue / My love still burns for you / But I know I'll only make you cry."
The song is rare for Elvis — rarely does he put himself of the position of the heartbreaker — but he sings it very effectively and here there can be no doubt of sincerity. The song is so musically pretty that it calls out for the listener just to go grab people to make them listen to it.
Overall, the album fails as 'country.' Where Elvis draws himself into the boundaries of that genre he traps himself, and does not come off very well. However, the songs we can accept at face value, such as his arrangement of "How Much I Lied," often succeed tremendously.
As a musical eclectic, Elvis falls somewhat short. As a pop/rock composer and stylist, however, he is far ahead of many of his peers. The next test will be where he goes with his next album — and that's due out any day.