Album Review: Elvis Costello, "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane" (Hear Music)
Rock's most aggressive genre hopper lands in the cozy and calming world of acoustic folk and country instrumentation, with producer T Bone Burnett demonstrating there's more to mine in this vein than Robert and Alison Krauss tapped on "Raising Sand."
By teaming Costello with a band dominated by fiddles, banjos, upright bass and rhythm guitar, Burnett removes the luster of a bygone era being resuscitated; this is Costello alternating between front-porch crooner, dispatched lover and angry punk with a limited musical vocabulary who can't bring himself to shed the instruments of his parents.
The performances on "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane" are top notch and, ultimately, the dominating appeal of the album. The tight fiddle and banjo work from Krauss' bandmate Stuart Duncan and the weepy dobro of Jerry Douglas get the prominent slots in the mix, but it's Dennis Crouch's steady bass that keeps these tunes in line, propping up the ballads and steering the more upbeat numbers.
While Costello has certainly explored country and folk-rock previously--most prominently on "Almost Blue" in 1981 and 1986's "King of America"--"Secret" hangs as an album without a similar commitment to a specific style or mission. His two partnerships of the last 11 years--"Painted From Memory" with Burt Bacharach and "The River in Reverse" with Allen Toussaint--were total stylistic immersions for Costello. "Secret" has about a half-dozen songs built with an appropriate infrastructure: "I Felt the Chill," a waltz written with Loretta Lynn, is a genre gem and "I Dreamed of My Old Lover" is a perfect marriage of rock balladry and a romantic longing expressed in the lyric that is echoed in the stirring accompaniment.
But Costello has too many instances of shoe-horning here that get mixed results, especially the four tunes from his opera "The Secret Songs": "Hidden Shame" works wonderfully as bluegrass romp; the ambitious "How Deep is the Red" and "She Was No Good" just sound ill-suited for these arrangements.
"Changing Partners," a waltz composed by Lawrence Coleman and Joseph Daron and popularized Bing Crosby, closes the album on a note of serenity, a reminder that popular music once had no genre boundaries, that a good song was simply that: a good song. Costello is one of the few artists living by those bygone rules, excelling when he limits the number of thumbprints--or even just the scope of a particular number--on any given project.