There are few genres into which Elvis Costello hasn't delved over the years, but he's always seemed particularly comfortable within the traditional back-porch country that occupies this latest session. Like 1986's similarly all-acoustic King of America, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane pairs Costello with producer T Bone Burnett, whose expertise in capturing the subtleties and intense emotions of Americana — these songs flit wildly from dark to joyous, from love discovered and squandered to head-scratchingly opaque — is unmatched.
On paper the set list appears a patchwork: two tracks, "The Crooked Line" (harmony vocal: Emmylou Harris) and the '20s-esque speakeasy blues "Sulphur to Sugarcane," were co-written with Burnett. "I Felt the Chill" was authored with Loretta Lynn, and Costello's "Down Among the Wine and Spirits" has previously been cut by her. Two tunes, "Complicated Shadows" and "Hidden Shame," were written not with but for Johnny Cash, and four — "She Handed Me a Mirror," "How Deep Is the Red?," "She Was No Good," and "Red Cotton" — come from a dormant Costello opera about, seriously, Hans Christian Andersen.
The closing tune, "Changing Partners," was a pop hit in the '50s for Patti Page, Bing Crosby, and others. Cut in Nashville with ace session players, what might have been a disastrous mess in other hands coheres into one of Costello's most satisfying releases in some time.