Album: Elvis Costello, "National Ransom" (Hear Music)
"National Ransom," Elvis Costello's second album in 16 months since reuniting with producer T Bone Burnett, is a rare, varied collection that works seamlessly, and is an improvement over last year's jerry-rigged "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane."
The songwriting combines elements from his early Attractions albums ("National Ransom," "Five Small Words," "The Spell That You Cast") and recent country forays ("I Lost You," the monumentally aching "That's the the Part of Him You're Leaving") with hot finger-picking and wordplay ("A Slow Drag With Josephine").
Certain songs are reminiscent of his work with Burt Bacharach ("Stations of the Cross," the bass trumpet, alto flute and bass clarinet on "One Bell Ringing") and Costello's folky album "All This Useless Beauty" from the mid-'90s ("Church Underground," "Bullets for the New-Born King"). (Fortunately, there is only a pinch of 2003's "North" in "You Hung the Moon.") "Dr. Watson, I Presume" is Costello at his most Dylanesque, circa "Desire."
This largely acoustic set shares the aspirational reach of "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane," but whereas that album felt like disparate yet quality parts stitched together, "National Ransom" flows unlike any other in his 30-plus years of record-making. He gives the audience songs to ponder and sing along with; it's as inviting as a well-stocked jukebox that attracts folks from all different walks of life. Costello's vocal approach on the 16 songs is filled with his typical confidence and bravado, and his bands -- the Imposters and the Sugarcanes appear here, along with guitarist Marc Ribot -- sound like they have been playing this material for years.
The one song you need: "That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving"