Being a fan of Elvis Costello is like being a fan of hockey -- it’s a thrill when he scores, but it’s not always easy to follow the puck.
The last time we saw the man formerly known as Declan MacManus strap on a guitar, he ran through his best loved hits in a ferocious set as a warm-up to The Police’s reunion tour. He attacked his axe and spit out the words, reminding us all why we fell in love with this punk rocker in the first place.
When I caught his show a year earlier, he indulgently clogged his set with obscure songs that did not connect with his audience. His last disc, "The Deliveryman," was a welcome return to rock and roll form, and now he presents his fans with "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane," a collection of string band ditties.
Even though this acoustic album is a departure from his last, it is a return to form of sorts. The record was produced by T Bone Burnett during a three-day session in Nashville; Burnett also twiddled the knobs for Costello on 1989’s "Spike" and "King of America."
T Bone, fresh from his multiple Grammy win as producer for the classic Robert Plant/Allison Krause disc "Raising Sand," adds his distinctive Kay electric guitar to several of numbers, the only amplified instrument on the recording.
Joining the duo on "Secret" are Jerry Douglas (dobro), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Mike Compton (mandolin), Jeff Taylor (accordion) and Dennis Crouch (double bass), some of the most highly regarded recording artists and musicians in traditional American country music, Bluegrass and beyond.
They weave a sonic tapestry that makes references to Appalachian, dustbowl blues, ragtime and alternative country. Emmylou Harris also drops by to add her sweet harmonies to gorgeous tracks like “The Crooked Line.”
Now, I would be lying if I told you that this kind of jug band music lights me up. When artists like Springsteen veer off into this genre, it sounds like a musical purgatory that they put their fans through.
To be sure, Burnett is the go-to guy when you decide to record songs in this genre. He created the seminal "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack, which made this kind of music fashionable for a (mercifully) brief period of time a few years back.
But Burnett has worked to create masterpieces on the subjects of love and loss with aging rockers like Robert Plant and John Mellencamp in recent years. Catching these artists in the autumn of their careers has made them reflective, and that creates a unique genre of quiet alternative country that puts the “blue” in bluegrass.
True to form, Costello paves his own way with the legendary producer. He slaps on a bib, grabs a fork, and embraces the fact that he is the meatball in a spaghetti western.
“Who were shooting up the town/When you should have found someone to put the blame on/Though the fury's hot and hard/I still see that cold graveyard/There's a solitary stone that’s got your name on/You don't have to take it from me,” he sings on “Complicated Shadows,” a mournful tune that will have an outlaw think twice before he grabs his gun.
Of course, no country album would be complete without a story about love gone bad, and this album is no exception.
“Well, there's a difference in the way that you kissed me/And there's a sadness in your eyes that you can't hide/Why do you tremble when I hold you?/I wonder if you feel the same,” he sings on “I Felt the Chill,” a song co-written by dung-kickin’ heartache queen Loretta Lynn.
Costello’s songwriting is so good that the tunes, like a cactus, can take any shape without losing their sharpness. These new tunes are no exception.
Costello’s voice normally comes along for the ride amicably. He can effortlessly switch gears from angry punk (his Attractions years) to crooner (the classic "Painted from Memory," which he recorded with Burt Bacharach).
In most spots on "Secret," the listener wonders how these songs might sound if the capable Englishman were replaced with someone like Emmylou Harris or Mary Chapin Carpenter.
He has had a lot of success with that strategy. His last trip to Nashville was for a duet of "The Scarlet Tide" with Harris. This song, co-written with Burnett, received an Academy Award nomination for Alison Krauss' rendition.
Costello’s cracked vocals shine when applied over the lonesome fiddle on "Changing Partners," a waltz originally made famous by Bing Crosby.
“Though we danced for a moment/too soon we had to part/in that wonderful moment something happened to my heart/so I’ll keep changing partners until you’re in my arms again/oh my darling, I will never change partners again,” he sings.
Of course, we know better than to believe him. He’s partnered with country now, but it will be only a matter of time before this rock and roll chameleon dances with another musical genre before long.
Costello will be touring in Manhattan behind the album this week - June 10 he was at the Beacon Theatre - so slap on a pair of overalls and head to the Beacon for a hoedown if that’s your thing!