Elvis Costello, with the help of producer T Bone Burnett, guitarists Marc Ribot, Jerry Douglas, Buddy Miller and members of the Imposters and Sugarcanes, has made another fine record — his best in years, according to Costello himself, who is smart and often right.
Costello's last effort was 2009's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, a bluegrassed and darkly-themed song cycle also produced by Burnett. Momfuku (2008) came two years after The River in Reverse, a post-Katrina collaboration with Allen Toussaint that came with this title-track stinger: "So count your blessings when they ask permission, to govern with money and superstition / They tell you it's all for your own protection, 'til you fear your own reflection."
The more things stay the same, the more things stay the same. "Woe betide all this hocus-pocus; they're running us ragged at their first attempt," Costello scorches on "National Ransom," the disc-opening rocker. "Around the time the killing stopped on Wall Street, you couldn't hold me baby with anything but contempt."
Costello, unlike fear-mongers and piggy bankers, doesn't hold us ransom. But he does hold our attention. And if his albums of jazz and classical music this decade aren't to everyone's taste, all Costello's adventures should be approved on some level, as they represent the pursuits of an interested man.
Which bring us to National Ransom, a mind-grabbing 60-minute experience. What we have here is a cleverly musical book of short stories, carried by big-brained lyrics, unusually detailed scenes, mix-and-match combos, deft arrangements, era-specific settings and styles, and characters who lament and lose.
"Jimmie Standing in the Rain," something right out a 1930s English music hall, refers to a career-challenged cowboy singer. If the sky unloads on our stand-in Jimmie Rodgers — an imitator who sings "counterfeited prairie lullabies" — the water damage of the piano-jazzed "Stations of the Cross" is outright catastrophic, with Costello's peculiar vocal emoting having to with water that "came up to the eaves."
On the jaunty "A Slow Drag with Josephine," Costello finger-picks with a 1937 Gibson L-00, an instrument, according to Costello, which has its "very own confidential voice." The same guitar is employed on "Bullets for the Newborn King," an unusually gentle tune about cold-blooded espionage and a regretful female double-agent.
Some of the record was recorded at Nashville's Sound Emporium, where legendary "Do Right Woman" songwriter Dan Penn reportedly popped in for visit. He may have heard the country soul of Costello's "That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving." If so, you'd have to think he'd have approved.