Along with the Eternal Sunshine DVD that came in the mail on Wednesday, I also got the new Elvis Costello release, "The Delivery Man," and gave it a first listen last night before the debate. For those who aren't as familiar with his country proclivities, there may be some shock, or even dismay at times. But it's beautiful to me, the closest he has come in a recording yet to the way he sounds here in Nashville, on stage at the Ryman. He seems to love to croon Memphis-soul-country tunes here (or maybe he sings George Jones and Johnny Cash everywhere he goes?).
There were definitely a few throw-away tracks, but I was thrilled that he added on to the end of this pseudo-concept album his own rendition of his Oscar-nominated song from Cold Mountain. Wish he had taken his time with it a bit more, like he did live here last time I heard him. I love Alison Kraus as much as the next guy, but the expressive voices of Elvis and Emmylou Harris (!) make that little song much more alive. Would have been moreso a bit slower, but what do I know.
The sound of the first track blew me away--it's the one I can't wait to get back to right now. Unfortunately he never really gets all the way back to that modernized Delta blues texture. And, I am not the fan of Lucinda Williams that he is, so wasn't all that thrilled to hear her voice on track 3. But there are some brilliant tunes here, an album that's kind of a cross between his "King of America"(mostly) and "When I Was Cruel" (a bit) plus some new things.
Given his proclivity to grow on me over several hearings, I expect good things out of this, though the song-writing is maybe not as ambitious as North was, musically. Could be the first hearing is as good as it gets, you never know. Actually (sorry I'm rambling now) I've been looking forward to this one for a few years, since he sang "Heart-Shaped Bruise" and explained how it was going to be a part of a song cycle, or musical, that told a story called The Delivery Man. There isn't much overt evidence that he stuck with that plan, save the mysterious names that appear at the top of some of the pages of the liner notes, which I've decided are character names. I found his description of the project here:
Initially, Mr. Costello had planned "The Delivery Man" as an album that told a story, along the lines of Willie Nelson's "Red-Headed Stranger." The setting is a small town, perhaps in the South; the main characters are three women. "It's an imaginary place but so is everything these days," he said. "But they are three particular types of person. One who imagines herself wilder and more dangerous than she is. Another who is very restrained and pious. And a young woman, a young girl really, a teenage girl who hasn't decided which way she wants to go in life. And they all in different ways look for something that they don't have in this guy who just passes through their life."I have to admit, I'm not much of a reliable source. There aren't many artists that can do no wrong for me. But I give alot of latitude to him (It took several Woody Allen clunkers in a row before I finally decided it was ok to call them that and to stop going to see them, and Elvis is nowhere near that). For reasons that probably wouldn't make much sense, his voice has become a kind of sacred life's blood for me. I need it about once a month, and new material once a year is perfect. Other artists speak to parts of me very clearly, but no others speak to all of me the way he does. Living in a world that didn't hold the promise of new Elvis Costello songs would be a grayer place indeed.
The album was recorded quickly at Sweet Tea, a small stone building where the band set up and played as if it were on a stage. "No screens, no headphones," Mr. Costello said. "Using stage monitors. Just dealing with the bleed. You just turn up the instrument that's too quiet. That's all we did.
"It's the kind of rock and roll music that a man of my years can play without embarrassment. It doesn't sound processed. It's some guys playing in the room. I hate that expression good old rock and roll. When did it become good and when did it become old?"