I hope Elvis Costello is keeping himself entertained. He apparently long ago grew weary of the smart, sharp pop-rock which initially made his reputation, and has since been experimenting with any number of genres and collaborators. While this commitment to musical diversity dates back to 1980's R&B-influenced Get Happy!! Costello has become notably more eclectic in the past two decades, dabbling in classical, jazz, opera country and television talk shows.
On his latest album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Costello opts for country and bluegrass arrangements. Had he set out to write a collection of songs with this sound in mind, the album might have been more successful.
As it is, it is musically cohesive: The album was recorded in a three-day session with producer T-Bone Burnett, and each track boasts the same dobro/fiddle/banjo/mandolin/bass/accordion lineup, performed by a number of well regarded country and bluegrass musicians. The song selection, however, is a bit less uniform. The disc offers up a random collection of compositions originally intended for other projects and releases. Sometimes this works: The outtakes from his New Orleans sessions with Allen Toussaint translate to this genre reasonably well.
However, the album takes a turn for the bizarre with the inclusion of four songs written for the Danish Royal Opera. These tracks very specifically detail fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen's fixation on 19th century opera star Jenny Lind, and her tour of the U.S. with circus magnate P.T. Barnum. It's an interesting story, but not one that has much to do with Appalachian music. "She Handed Me a Mirror" describes Lind's non-verbal rejection of the apparently ogre-like Andersen, and is comparatively accessible, since unattainable, unreciprocated love is an immortal theme.
"Red Cotton," on the other hand, Costello explains as documenting Barnum "reading an Abolitionist pamphlet while sewing red-dyed scraps of Lind's garment, even as he confronts the burden of guilt attached to its very threads." Without that context, available on Costello's Web site, lyrics like "The slave ship ‘Blessing' slipped from Liverpool / Over the waves the Royal Navy rules / To go and plunder the Kingdom of Benin" are incomprehensible.
"Sulphur to Sugarcane" has a narrative conceit as well, but not one that requires extensive knowledge of major Scandinavian artistic notables of the 1850s. Costello's humor, in scant evidence elsewhere on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is well-represented here with a series of geographical couplets describing the sexual predilections of the female population of various cities. Apparently "The women in Poughkeepsie / Take their clothes off when they're tipsy." I won't even disclose what the ladies in Ypsilanti like to do.
Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane isn't a terrible album, just an unnecessary, rather boring one. Costello had the right idea when he excised these songs from previous efforts. In fact, the best song here, "Complicated Shadows," already did come out on 1996's All This Useless Beauty, in a more compelling rock form. There are a few other bright spots, notably a vocal contribution from Emmylou Harris on "The Crooked Line" and the relatively upbeat twang of "Hidden Shame," but for the most part Secret, Profane & Sugarcane sounds like what it is: an odds and sods collection which tries to disguise its randomness with a rather monotonous commitment to traditional acoustic arrangements.