Release Date: Nov 2, 2010
Record label: Hear Music
Elvis Costello has worn willful eclecticism as a badge of honor for so long that his decision to retain the same essential support and sound for 2010’s National Ransom as he did for its 2009 predecessor Secret, Profane & Sugarcane means something. Building upon a foundation instead of beginning another journey suggests that he knows he has a fruitful collaboration with producer T-Bone Burnett and a good band with the Sugarcanes, who are now melded with the Imposters to give this Americana -- equal parts roots-rock, country, and pre-war balladry -- some serious kick. Secret, Profane and National Ransom share some superficial sonic characteristics, but the former played as a clearinghouse of odds and ends, while National Ransom is a purposeful album, its themes elegantly meshing together and carrying considerable momentum.
Elvis can’t pick a genre, but we don’t care There aren’t too many artists who can make an album that features both vaudeville and bluegrass sounds and get away with it. At this point in his career, Elvis Costello has dabbled in every genre under the sun, and on National Ransom, his second collaboration with T Bone Burnett in as many years, he gives us a little bit of everything. On paper, it should be a disaster, but Costello’s stellar songwriting saves the project and makes it worth delving into.
You'd be hard pressed to find an album as varied as Elvis Costello's National Ransom (his 26th, give or take). Opening with the energetic title track, it at first appears to be an Americana effort in the vein of last year's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (both produced by Grammy magnet T Bone Burnett), only set against the backdrop of the imploded economy. Here, he's fairly incensed - always a good thing in Costello's case - and as verbose and intelligent as ever.
If Elvis Costello ever makes good on his threat to stop making albums, we’d be a greedy lot to protest. Costello could’ve quit the game after Blood & Chocolate and still found his icon status written in cement. After flirting with irrelevance during the 1990s, the man born Declan MacManus has spent the last decade brazenly genre hopping at a speed that easily embarrasses the majority of his contemporaries.
National Ransom is Elvis Costello’s second consecutive album recorded with producer T-Bone Burnett, and though it sounds very much like an intentional sequel to the barnstorming Secrets, Profane & Sugarcane, the veteran songwriter, who now seems more comfortable with Americana, elects to tinker with the genre’s formula. A musical shapeshifter in the truest sense of the word, Costello draws on his eclectic history and flirts promiscuously with punk, bluegrass, and jazz throughout the album. This makes National Ransom an especially busy cocktail, but the ingredients are so rich and full of flavor that it’s impossible not to be charmed.
On 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Elvis Costello teamed with producer T Bone Burnett and a talented string band for a set of heartfelt numbers which mined various stripes of the Americana ore. This 2010 follow-up features almost the same band (with guest appearances by Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Leon Russell, and others), a similar Tony Millionaire cover cartoon, and a kindred concentration on non-rock stylings. But where Sugarcane focused on the topic of love, this one casts a wider net, exploring the next-greatest force in the universe – money – as well as war, poverty, infidelity, scandal, assassinations, the economic woes of the ‘00s, and the demoralized people left in its wake.
Costello’s Nashville love affair continues, but while enjoyable this is no classic. Chris Roberts 2010 Elvis Costello can’t be accused of genre-fear. Over an illustrious career of inspiring Bret Easton Ellis titles he’s also attempted opera, punk, jazz and soul. He can be forgiven then for making two consecutive studio albums which stick to a core of country and Americana.