Almost Blue (Columbia) is a dream come true for Elvis Costello. One of the great things about rock stardom is that you get to indulge yourself. For Costello, a die-hard country music freak, that entailed a trip to Nashville to record a bunch of pure country hits with legendary producer Billy Sherrill.
Costello's choice of material and the versions he has put to vinyl indicate that this country side trip is no faddish or whimsical notion. He works his way through Hank Williams' Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do), Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," Charlie Rich's "Sittin' and Thinkin'," the Joe Turner song recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, "Honey Hush," and the Gram Parsons/Chris Ethridge lament "Hot Burrito Number One," retitled "I'm Your Toy." These are all pieces of music tried and true to a certain definition of country music. The words detail with crystal clarity the emotions of love and loss. They zero in on events with an economy of phrasing, an eye for detail and a sense of lyrical device that is awesome when it works.
These very elements have always been the hallmark of Costello's rock. He's made a lot of mournful, reflective songs that deal with his own pain. He has also carved a writing style based on the same kind of succinct imagery and turns of phrase found in this set. His own Stranger in The House would not be out of place in this context.
In some instances Costello's raspy voice perfectly suits the sentiment of the tune, most notably on George Jones' "Good Year For The Roses." He is equally able to bring home a poignant losers lament such as "I'm Your Toy."
The playing, provided by Costello's regular backing unit, The Attractions, Indicates that these English boys were also heavily influenced during their formative years by, Nashville sounds. Augmented by Sherrill's production and the fine lead and steel guitar of John McFee and other Nashville studio help, there can be no doubt that, however indulgent, the sound of this album is very important to Costello.
It seems to go without saying that not many of the fans committed to Costello are likely to understand this album. Almost Blue will stand as a great revelation. For a whole other group, here is a great drinking album for a wide array of circumstances. That gives it as much in common with Nashville as anything else.