Elvis Costello and The Roots – [Album]

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nevermind David Bowie, Elvis Costello is the true chameleon of rock. His own style has evolved from angry punk through sophisticated pop to his current reworkings of roots Americana styles. Along the way, he has had no fear about trying out genres not only unlike his own, but often on the far side of the musical spectrum.

As early as Almost Blue, his 1981 album of country covers, Costello has proved he can shift genres without missing a beat (pun intended), or losing his own voice. In the years since, he has given us the smooth jazz of North, the string quartet of The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, and even a ballet score in Il Sogno. He has worked with Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint, and he has still cranked out album after album of his own particular brand of pop rock as well. Now he has teamed up with The Roots, a band with their own history of musical evolution and versatility. They originally made their name as one of the few rap bands to use live instruments instead of samples; now they are best known as Jimmy Fallon's house band which can play anything.

The result of Costello's collaboration with The Roots is easily identified as a Costello album, yet is also unlike anything else in his catalog. The track “Stick Out Your Tongue” is a reworking of “Pills and Soap” from Punch the Clock. It is at once recognizable as the older song, yet is still a new piece of its own. The whole album is like that; familiar, but new.

Unluckily, the results are decidedly mixed. Like many of his more “out there” experiments, the result is more interesting than exciting. Most of the songs are based on slow grooves which gives the album a solid funkiness, but is not Costello's strength, which has always been tight, snappy pop songs. The tempo is not only slow, but it often drags; much of his usual punch gets lost here.

It's a pity because Costello has some of his sharpest political lyrics here. Lines like, “The former dictator was impeccably behaved/ They're mopping up the stubborn ones who refuse to be saved” (“Refuse to Be Save”) and “Don't open the door/ 'cos they're coming/ Above there's an ominous humming/ Below there's a murmur of prayer” (“Tripwire”) abound. However, you need to work to find them. From his very first album, Costello has been great at punching up his strongest lines. Here, he buries them.

What Costello has always been is a great songwriter. He has demonstrated that repeatedly. His strongest albums have always been those where he could really unleash that talent. That is not the case here. Rather than freeing him, the slow funk imprisons him in its grooves here; making this a noble experiment, but not a completely successful one.

But it's good to remember that Costello has often followed his experiments with some of his best work. Almost Blue was followed by Imperial Bedroom, his first expansive masterwork. Juliet Letters and North were both followed by reinvigorated returns to angry pop-punk (Brutal Youth and Delivery Man, respectively). River in Reverse, his  collaboration with Allen Toussaint, lead to Secret, Profane and Sugar Cane, an album marked by further explorations in southern blues and jazz – so who knows what will come after this one?



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