Elvis Costello, ever the genre-bender, revives a softer-spoken, delicate focus reminiscent of Almost Blue and King of America in his new album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. At times soothing, at times beguiling, the country/bluegrass/torch amalgam is beautifully arranged and formidably played.
From the first few seconds of "Down Among The Wine and Spirits," it is apparent that the album's producer, T-Bone Burnett — fresh off teaming Robert Plant and Alison Krauss — is more studio partner than knob-twirler. For the music he wanted to create, Costello found the ideal collaborator.
If you liked the Plant/Krauss project, Secret will be familiar territory: dobro, banjo, fiddle, upright bass, Loretta Lynn here, Emmylou Harris there, the stuff of Americana, a few planets away from Costello's recorded origins, yet well within his vocabulary.
I particularly liked the upbeat "Complicated Shadows," the Lynn-co-written "I Felt The Chill," the spirited romp "My All-Time Doll," the plaintive "How Deep Is The Red?" and the closing waltz, "Changing Partners" (dedicated to his "one and only dancing partner," wife Diana Krall).
If that sounds like an acceptable quota, well, I'm sorry to say repeated listening doesn't make for a fully appreciable recording. The gorgeous tone can carry only so far. The handful of strong melodies live in a languid environment, with insufficient Elvis verve, and by including four songs written for opera, Costello seems to be indulging his capacity as a musical chameleon instead of his audience's need for coherence.
It's possible, too, that in recording the album in three days, Costello didn't take enough time to pursue his vision. It is more proof Elvis can do almost anything musically, but Secret is a subtle album strangely lacking in nuance.
(An aside: The liner notes suggest a Lou Reed song, "Femme Fatale," is somewhere on the album, but unless it's subliminally coded, I couldn't find it.)