In the late '70s, Elvis Costello made his mark by being one of the few members of the back-to-basics pub rock scene to both avoid the overwhelming force of punk rock and to reach stardom in the New Wave genre. He is renowned for his vast knowledge of pop culture, colorful lyricism and determination to dabble in almost all forms of popular music.
Costello proudly continues all of these traditions with National Ransom. Lyrically, the entire album is up to Costello's usual high standards, from the snarky "You couldn't hold me, baby/With anything but contempt," to more sober descriptions of cheated characters. In this album, the theme of betrayal is less explored than explicitly spelled out.
The songs span a wide range of styles, from the vaudevillian "A Voice in the Dark" to the European Riviera vibe of "A Slow Drag With Josephine." The musical variety is incredible, and the album rarely feels forced or rushed.
Perhaps master producer T-Bone Burnett's experience is to thank for the album's fluidity. It's remarkable that National Ransom flies by at a reasonable clip, given the taut 16-song, hour-long recording. The album showcases a medley of moods and tempos whose arrivals and departures are perfectly timed.
What makes the balance so surprising is the contrast between Costello's songs' lyrics and their musical composition. The titular song jumps forward with an almost comically energetic keyboard; the instruments band together to create a piece with an idealistic flavor. Only later do listeners discover that the lyrics are about starving people and ravenously greedy figures. Though Burnett deserves praise for deliberately synthesizing the album's pacing and lyricism, it is Costello's professional delivery that unites these mismatched song elements in an engaging way.
To Costello fans, his finesse and talent for joining disparate parts is nothing new or surprising. Costello's cynical approach to light, airy pop music placed him in the position of a New Age music poster-child, and he has yet to completely lose his edginess.
Unfortunately, his roughness isn't at its finest in this album, which does not preoccupy itself with any particularly sharp edges or edginess in general. It's sad but true: National Ransom is the product of an aging rock musician who is clearly enjoying both himself and the sheer force of his career momentum. Nothing on the album is particularly interesting. National Ransom is just a collection of fun and occasionally catchy tunes.
Simply put, every song is of a relatively high caliber, but without any dynamic goal. National Ransom is simply not memorable, and therefore resigns itself to transient greatness. I would be sincerely surprised if any of the tracks from this album are still relevant in a year or even three months, except for maybe "Nation Ransom" and the calculating and angry "Church Underground."
Listen to National Ransom. Enjoy it, and take from it what you will. Costello's latest neither stuns nor disappoints, and it is a healthy enough addition to any pop lover's collection.