The idea of Elvis Costello doing a country record should come as no surprise; the B-side of his first Stiff single was the catchy "Radio Sweetheart," complete with steel guitar. On the surface, this is very similar to what Joe Jackson attempted with his recent LP of swing era remakes, Jumping Jive, and commercially it's a gutsy move. I'm sure that the last thing Columbia was interested in was a Costello record with no originals, since the man's forte is songwriting. So this is an admirable creation, right?
Yes and no. On the one hand, an artist of Elvis' stature should be allowed some time off from pursuing his usual vision, and an album displaying a deeply felt influence is surely more interesting than the usual stopgap live album. On the other hand, it is him and his band playing and it's hard not to compare this to the excellent Trust. Ultimately, Almost Blue, made in Nashville with noted producer Billy Sherrill, should be judged as a country record. That's the problem. If Elvis and the Attractions had really grabbed hold of the tunes, there would be none of this animal/vegetable/mineral speculation. Only rarely do they make a song theirs.
The songs picked — including numbers by Charlie Rich, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Hank Williams — fall into three overlapping categories: songs about booze, songs with a touch of novelty to them, and slow weepers. It's the quieter ones, such as "Too Far Gone" and "I'm Your Toy (Hot Burrito #1)," that stand out; surprising, since Elvis is not blessed with the greatest voice, but he does make them work. The jokey songs are where things fall down. Elvis, known to be a bit of a wise guy on his own, doesn't sound too convincing on a track like "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," and, hell, I don't think he's much of a drinker either. Right there is the dilemma that Almost Blue never resolves: imagine this punning, paranoid Britisher as a good ol' Southern boy. That would require a leap of faith that the music won't let you make.