The Word, June 2009

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The Word


Our man in Savannah

Elvis Costello / Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

Paul Du Noyer

Elvis Costello has made an immaculate piece of Deep South "Victoriana". Which prompts the question: when you go off-piste so often, is there any such thing as a side project?

Elvis Costello came up with a great ruse on his recent US tour. He has a new song, called "Sulphur To Sugarcane," about a philandering politician, the sort of sweating good ol' boy that Randy Newman used to specialise in. Every night Costello would add new lines, impugning the morals of each town's ladies. Women In Poughkeepsie, for example, "take their clothes off when they're tipsy". (It helps if you know how to pronounce Poughkeepsie.) Meanwhile, in Ypsilanti, "they don't wear any panties". The girls in Iowa City "form a welcoming committee." And those of Albany, New York, "love the filthy way of talk". There are plenty more. Apparently it always went down a storm.

Which makes you wonder: could he do the same on a British tour? The females of Bude, one imagines, would be guaranteed to feature, should his schedule stretch to the north Cornish coast. And in the town of Aberystwyth, no doubt, "there are girls you can get pissed with". And so we ask: will Costello rise to the challenge?

Anyway, "Sulphur To Sugarcane" is probably the jolliest Costello song ever, not that jollity was ever his trademark. Its gently honky-tonk rhythm feels at home on what is basically a country record. Which means that Secret, Profane & Sugarcane isn't quite a "standard" Costello release — but what is, these days? Collaborations with Allen Toussaint and Anne Sofie van Otter, with Burt Bacharach and the Brodsky Quartet, have taken him to nearly every corner of musical possibility. When he made his first career detour, going to Nashville for 1981's country LP Almost Blue, it seemed like a side-project. But given the sheer range and workrate of latterday Costello, there really are no "side-projects" now. The journey is the destination.

He's back in Nashville this time, with a rag-bag of songs (a Bing Crosby cover, an old song of his own, some pieces for an unfinished chamber opera, other stuff for other artists). They're unified, though, by the small group of players and the fact he bashed it all out in just three days. It's coherent and vigorous, and never sounds laboured. Its lyrics are clever, but not too dense. Actually, this is some of the easiest listening he's ever come up with. It helps that it's largely an acoustic record, the first he's done since King Of America in 1986. His producer, then as now, is T-Bone Burnett, while the musicians are from that huge pool of rootsy expertise that makes America the only proper place to record Americana.

But it's a rather Victorian Americana. The Dobro guitar, the mandolin, some fiddle and double bass, are very old-time touches. The songs are as sepia-toned as The Decemberists. I'm only sorry that HBO have cancelled their splendid Wild West series Deadwood, for these tracks would have sounded fantastic over the closing credits, amid that 19th-century frontier world of half-remembered British folk songs, carefully formal language and uncomfortable London clothes.

More explicitly there is the American South, with tales of riverboats and slave plantations, and songs written for Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash (including a re-worked version of "Complicated Shadows"), mostly stuffed with Biblical guilt and washed down with alcohol. "Hidden Shame" is a typical instance, serving us guns, the gallows and Judgement Day. It's not entirely backwoods gothic, though, for on the lighter side are some romantic charmers, including an old Bing Crosby waltz called "Changing Partners." It's possibly the sort of number Costello would have witnessed from the wings of the Hammersmith Palais, where as a child he watched his father sing with the Joe Loss Orchestra.

The country tag may lead some fans to avoid Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Which would be a pity, as it offers some of Costello's most touching songs in years. Especially poignant are four tracks from an unfinished song cycle for the Royal Danish Opera, concerning the 1850 visit to America of Sweden's famed singer Jenny Lind, who left behind her lovelorn admirer, the writer Hans Christian Anderson. Among these four is the exquisite "She Handed Me A Mirror," inspired by the legend that Lind made Andersen look at his own ugly reflection to understand why she would never be his. The tongue-tied misfit and the unattainable woman were once a staple Elvis theme, but the tenderness of feeling is quite different here. Just to finish poor Andersen off, Jenny Lind adds "the crushing word... Friend."

The unfortunate Andersen sought solace in his strange world of fairy tales. Perhaps he just couldn't find a rude word that rhymed with Sweden.


The Word, No. 76, June 2009

Paul Du Noyer reviews Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.


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Page scan.

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