The Sunday Times (Australia), July 11, 2009

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Elvis Costello back with Secret, Profane and Sugarcane


ELVIS Costello has been back to Nashville.

You can even call his new album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, a country record if you like, since it was swiftly recorded in Nashville with a small band of A-list bluegrass hot shots.

Still, it's a fair bet Costello was the only guy in Nashville who was making a record with songs inspired by, among other things, Jenny Lind, a famous singing star of the 1850s, and fairytale teller Hans Christian Andersen, who was besotted with her.

Other songs have more obvious country connections, such as I Felt the Chill, co-written with Loretta Lynn. The two couldn't have picked a more suitable location to seek inspiration. They were in Johnny Cash's old writing cabin outside of Nashville at the time.

It's now a small recording studio run by Cash's son John Carter Cash, and a timber beam above the fireplace is covered with the signatures of visitors over the years.

Among them, the youthful and trembling hand of one Elvis Costello, who first signed the beam in 1981, the day after he completed recording sessions in Nashville for his country record, Almost Blue.

At that time, making it was seen as an audacious, perhaps even impertinent, move by the gifted young new-waver who had made his mark with songs fuelled by biting anger and contempt.

In retrospect, Almost Blue, an album of affectionate covers of country classics, makes perfect sense in a career where Costello's calling card has been as a writer with a deep knowledge of and respect for all kinds of music, not afraid to try his hand at whatever style takes his fancy.

So the only surprise about Costello going back to Nashville is that it took him so long. This time, he went with his old friend, producer T Bone Burnett, making their first record together since that five-star classic from the Costello catalogue, King Of America.

"It's been almost 25 years since King of America, which is the record that this one is likely to be compared to," Costello says from New York.

"I don't know why because no two records are really alike, and I've never put a "Two" after any of my titles. I started out planning an acoustic record. Of course making it in Nashville with these people who come from the world of traditional music and bluegrass is going to signpost to a lot of people that that is what it is.

"I've even heard it described as a bluegrass record, which I find a bit bewildering if you actually listen to it."

Instead, the album is another example of the breadth of Costello's songwriting. In fact, no one who started out in rock 'n' roll has ranged quite so freely as Costello.

In his 25 or so albums since Almost Blue, he has moved from The Juliet Letters, recorded with classical string players The Brodsky Quartet, to an album of torch songs, North, the orchestral Il Sogno, the For The Stars collaboration with opera star Anne Sofie Von Otter, and the jazz big band settings of My Flame Turns Blue. Then there are the songwriting collaborations, with Burt Bacharach for Painted From Memory, with New Orleans soul legend Allen Toussaint for The River In Reverse, and with his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, for her album The Girl In The Other Room.

Not to mention back to fierce rock 'n' roll with his band The Imposters on albums like The Delivery Man and Momofuku.

The beginnings of Secret, Profane and Sugarcane go back as far as the song Complicated Shadows, which first appeared on Costello's 1996 release All This Useless Beauty, an album of tunes he originally wrote for others to perform.

That song was written with Johnny Cash in mind. Though Cash did record two Costello tunes (The Big Light and Hidden Shame), he never did a version of Complicated Shadows. So Costello reclaims it for the new album and it is perfectly suited to the small-band acoustic setting. It nestles up to the country waltz of I Felt The Chill, and old-timey tunes such as She Handed Me a Mirror.

It's one of four songs included on the album that were originally performed in Copenhagen in 2005 as part of the bicentenary celebrations for Hans Christian Andersen's birth. But they don't sound out of place played by a bluegrass band in Nashville.

The durability of his material is at the heart of Costello's success as a musical explorer. Whatever the style, his records still sound like Elvis Costello first rather than mere genre experiments.

"We were recording without too much heartache," Costello says of the new album.

"We weren't trying to make everything perfect, and that's what we would do if we were going on stage. You don't stop halfway through and go, 'Sorry, we're going to do that again'. You just carry on and try to get the song over as best you can."

Costello has never been one to dither in the studio, and the Sugarcane album was captured in three days.

"Every record has its methodology and the one I'm subscribing to at the moment is closer to wax," he says. "You go in with musicians who understand the story you are trying to tell. Then you take it out (on stage) and play it again a different way.

"The song Sulphur to Sugarcane I performed solo in the original draft on the Bob Dylan tour two years ago. Then I played it with The Imposters, minus Steve Nieve but with Jim Dickinson on keyboards. I played it on (radio show) Prairie Home Companion with their house band (and) I played it on the tour I just did in England with the Brodsky Quartet.

"It's good to have a song that can travel with you."

That song will do some more travelling when Costello returns to Australia in October for a solo tour, armed with guitars, stories and the songs from his 30-year career.

Elvis Costello plays Brisbane Convention Centre, October 18. Tickets go on sale from Ticketek from July 21.


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The Sunday Times (Australia), July 11, 2009


The Sunday Times reviews Secret, Profane & Sugarcane


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