Title - 'Secret, Profane and Sugarcane' (HEAR Music)
Artist - Elvis Costello
The easy comparison to make is to King of America, Elvis' first album produced by T-Bone Burnett. The influence of deep rooted American forms of music is strong, all wrapped up in a package which seems to be commonly labeled "Americana". Too much stock shouldn't be put in the comparison, despite the similarities.
Of course, long-time listeners of Costello's hopefully know better than to go in with too many expectations of what they're going to find, other than good songwriting. And songwriting is where I think he is one of the most consistent musicians out there. It is how they're brought through in recording, and constructing, an album that perhaps has a little more variability.
The results here don't make for one of his masterpieces, but they also don't make for a misstep. I love his rock records, but I still have those to put on when I want to hear them, I don't need them to be remade. So, this almost entirely acoustic, more lowkey affair, is a welcome addition. Actually, I've been hoping for an album in this style from him, and this one does disappoint, overall. Top notch musicians were brought in, and they do their job, the music is skillfully played. T-Bone Burnett was of course the perfect choice to this all together. The sound, especially, is excellent.
When the tracklist was first released, I was slightly disappointed to see "Hidden Shame" and "Complicated Shadows", songs he wrote for The Man in Black. I was hoping for fresher material. It turns out that these fit right in, and do well to keep the album moving. Actually, they are part of what I think is the album's strongest stretch, the first five songs. "My All Time Doll" sticks out for that sardonic streak, that any regular listener of Costello's should appreciate. "I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came" is an effective, emotive songwriting collaboration with Loretta Lynn, which I much prefer to their last joint effort, on his previous album.
For me, the album starts to drag when it hits the songs written for his chamber opera, based around the life of Hans Christian Andersen. "She Handed Me a Mirror", "How Deep is the Red?", and "She Was No Good", here sequenced with a song not from the opera, "I Dreamed Of My Old Lover", which does nothing to lighten the mood. The chamber opera songs are somewhat plodding; too stately, studied, and subdued for this affair, especially sequenced in this block at the middle of the album. Here, the pretensions Elvis Costello is often criticized for, sometimes unfairly in my opinion, can legitimately be recognized.
Thankfully, things pick up significantly with the loose, entertaining "Sulphur to Sugarcane". This is followed by "Red Cotton", a much more welcome, and moving, holdover from the opera. The album closes with a high quality songwriting collab with T-Bone, and a well done cover, which does what a good cover should, and really sounds like a song that belongs to Elvis here.
Overall, this is a very good album. Again, he has not repeated himself, this is a unique, and welcome, entry to his catalog. [JV]