Another day, another pointless Elvis Costello album. Could anyone truly love this record, rather than merely listening to it once (twice at the most), appreciating the craftsmanship of country and bluegrass' finest session musicians, before filing it alongside those other pointless and maddening Elvis Costello releases from a career now littered with superfluous filler. In times of yore the name Elvis Costello was synonymous with quality, a guarantee that what you'd get would be punchy, pointed and pertinent. His anger felt like desperation translated into musical edge, driven by disaffection and a young man's truth as he saw it. Not a young man anymore, Elvis looks like your archetypal, avoirdupois baby-boomer comfortable in his own saggy middle-aged skin, living in a big fuck-off castle with Diana Krall. Which begs the question, should he by now have ceased trading under the name Elvis Costello? Declan McManus, his real name, would surely be a better fit for his latter day output.
Elvis Costello was a creation to piss people off (the name Elvis was chosen when the King had just died), and in a sense he's still pissing people off, but for different reasons. Some may argue that the frighteningly prescient King of America (incidentally recorded with T Bone Burnett, who produces this) was the moment he jumped the shark, though he also recorded Blood and Chocolate in the same year and was a full eight years away from his last great album Brutal Youth. You could also argue that it was when Costello switched from Columbia Records to Warner Bros. that he lost the plot, but again, Brutal Youth was still to come. Instead, the moment that Declan McManus buried Elvis Costello was when he recorded Demis Roussos' 'She' for the soundtrack to Notting Hill. Artistically moribund up to this point, 'She' sounded the death knell on his artistic lifespan, the chimera that indicated he had passed over into the next life, that he was now comfortable recording snotty, smug, middle-aged tosh for wankers in people carriers.
And so we come to the latest instalment of Elvis: The Coffee Table Years. Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is a soul album with little soul, a country album from a man from a different country. It sounds expensive, and probably is, but the one expense spared is toil; Elvis' visceral rage has been replaced with hobby music. He jams with great musicians and works with the biggest names, but for all the name dropping, Elvis Costello and the Attractions will always roll off the tongue best. 'I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came', written with Loretta Lynn, is pretty enough; 'Hidden Shame', a song recorded by Johnny Cash, pushes all the right country buttons, and 'The Crooked Line', featuring Emmylou Harris on backing vocals sounds almost authentic, but there's just something so prefab and vainglorious about the whole thing. This is life-support machine music. For anyone hoping for one final hurrah of artistic integrity, you will find nothing here. Elvis, it seems, left the building a long time ago.