Elvis Costello – [Album]

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

As early as 1982's Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello demonstrated that he was more than just an angry young man with a talent for hooks and clever wordplay. He was one of pop's great songwriters; able to conquer a wide variety of styles and emotions.

Throughout his long career, he has consistently proven this. He has had his share of hits and misses, of wild experiments (Juliette Letters, North and that collaboration with Burt Bacharach), of stylistic expansions (from Almost Blue to last year's Secret, Profane and Sugarcane), and returns to his roots (Brutal Youth and Momofuku), but his songwriting has remained strong throughout it all. And every now and then he'll throw out an album which seems designed to demonstrate the breadth of that talent; to show how many styles he can tackle.

National Ransom is such an album. Costello covers a variety of styles here, from the punkish title track to the boogie-woogie of “My Lovely Jezebel,” from the music hall shuffle of “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” to the pure country of “That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving.” If there is a dominant style here, it is a sort of 1920s pop with a foxtrot beat and strummed banjo backing – but even that only pops up in a handful of songs.

Although most of the songs are built upon the usual rock combo, the instrumentation is varied and carefully crafted to match the styles of the songs, from the aforementioned banjo and mandolin, to church organ on “Church Underground” and a light sweetening of strings on “You Hung the Moon” and “One Bell Ringing.”

His lyrics have lost none of their bite or their cleverness. His famous anger still rings in “National Ransom,” a biting attack on our current financial situation, and in “Bullet for the New Born King,” which is actually a political folk parable. “Five Small Words” continues his wordplay: “Baby, please don't leave me/ Why don't you believe me?/ Why did you deceive me?” As does “The Spell That You Cast”: “Come back baby/ Or at least tell me where you're going.” He turns romantic imagery upside down in “You Hung The Moon”:

"You hung the moon
from a gallows in the sky.
Choked out the light
in his blue, blue eyes.
The shore is a parchment,
the sea has no tide,
since he was taken
from my side.”

However, somewhere along the line, he seems to have lost the touch of the catchy hook. While there are many fine songs here, none of them linger in the mind after the album is done. His early albums were one hook, one catchy song after another (in fact, almost everything on his first four albums glued itself into my mind after one or two listens), and even most of his later albums had at least a couple of catchy tunes. Here though, nothing sticks, even after repeated listens (the closest is “Five Small Words” but even that leaves only a ghostly impression).

In the end, National Ransom is a subtler album than we expect from Elvis Costello. On first listen, it sounds like a classic offering, but on repeated listens its' joys are not the glorious hooks and choruses he made his reputation on. Instead, the pleasure lies in the subtler touches, the careful crafting of his words and songs. That is, in itself, a sign of his continuing maturity as a songwriter.



National Ransom
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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