It's not surprising that Elvis Costello would release an album of old country-western songs, as he has on Almost Blue (Columbia, FC 37562). Before he took the rock 'n' roll stage name of Elvis Costello, Declan McManus played acoustic guitar and sang country music in London pubs. In his rare interviews, Costello has cited country stars Hank Williams and George Jones as his favorite artists. Costello even wrote an unabashed country weeper, "Stranger in the House," to sing as a duet with Jones.
It is surprising that Costello would make such a middle-of-the-road country album. Costello rebelled against Los Angeles commercial formulas to create stripped-down-to-basics rock 'n' roll albums. Records Yet he gladly embraces Nashville commercial formulas to create an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink country album. Instead of singing in the austere Willie Nelson style for which he's suited, Costello tries to sing in the ornate George Jones style for which he's not. Costello works against his best instincts and produces the first disappointing album of his career. Almost Blue is not revealing the way Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline was, but is indulgent the way Dylan's Self-Portrait was.
For the first time in his career, Costello has abandoned producer Nick Lowe. He has turned instead to Jones' longtime producer, Billy Sherrill. This move is especially curious since Lowe has produced fine traditional country records for Johnny Cash and Carlene Carter, while Sherrill is largely responsible for Nashville's schmaltziest compromises.
All the album's worst tendencies are collected on the Patsy Cline hit, "Sweet Dreams." Both the music and lyrics are a string of romantic cliche's, and Sherrill reinforces them with mushy strings and wispy voices. Costello struggles ineffectively in this quicksand of schlock and drowns with the song. Even on well-written songs like the two George Jones compositions — "Brown to Blue" and "Color of the Blues" — Costello tries to copy previous versions rather than reinterpret them.
Despite these disappointments, Almost Blue does have its pleasures. Every country album must have its drinking songs, and Costello redeems Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and Charlie Rich's "Sittin' and Thinkin' " with a quick, bouncy pace and a chuckling sense of humor. The Haggard song is highlighted by a lively duet between Doobie Brother John McFee's braying pedal steel guitar and Steve Neive's rattling honky-tonk piano.
Only two songs have the slightest hint of rock 'n' roll. With a heavily echoed vocal and boogie-woogie piano, Costello & the Attractions storm through a rockabilly version of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" in a minute and a half. Even better is the rockabilly cult classic, the Johnny Burnette Trio's "Honey Hush," which stalks forward with pumping organ, jagged guitar and a nasty, nasal vocal. The two best songs, however, were written by country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Costello gives "How Much I Lied" a dramatic vocal that moves from self-pity to a more honest confession. Even more dramatic is "I'm Your Toy," which pits Neive's threatening organ against McFee's plaintive steel guitar.