Elvis Costello: “Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane”
Initially, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane was scheduled to be released not as a proper Elvis Costello album, but as a Coward Brothers album– a makeshift duo comprised of Costello and producer T-Bone Burnett. Though the role of each man remains unchanged, the billing doesn’t– now, it’s simply an Elvis Costello album produced by Burnett– but the last-minute name change suggests something of the haphazard, by-the-seat-of-their-pants manner in which the record was assembled.
And speaking of name changes: They may as well have called this one Almost Bluegrass. Though Burnett has produced Costello before, both on the glossy pop workout Spike and the spare, acoustic Americana of King of America, this new recording bears more in common with Almost Blue, Costello’s country/Western covers album from the early 80s– not in sound so much as in spirit. Like that album, Sugarcane finds Costello rolling up his sleeves for a genre exercise that uncannily emulates the style of a particularly American musical idiom. Only this time, instead of Nashville-bred countrypolitan and honky-tonk, it’s Appalachian bluegrass, pitched somewhere between string band and jug band, almost entirely acoustic and played with bona fide hillbilly grit by Costello and a troupe of honest-to-goodness bluegrass musicians.
That Costello nails the sound he’s striving for goes without saying; this is the walking, one-man Pop Encyclopedia we’re talking about, of course, and he’s never met a genre he couldn’t mold into his own image. But as well as it works, on a technical level anyway, as bluegrass, I’m not so sure that it works as a Costello album.
He’s got the country grit that he needs to make this work– that much was proved with Almost Blue. And he’s got the sensitivity to make his acerbic wit and love of wordplay work in an acoustic setting– that much was proved, well, over and over again, on too many Costello albums to count. He’s even got the songs: “Hidden Shame” is a strutting country number that recalls the rambling “Glitter Gulch,” “My All-Time Doll” is an ominous creeper, “I Dreamed of My Old Lover” is an appealingly old-timey country-folk ballad, and a new version of “Complicated Shadows,” though stripped of its electric guitar, actually musters more energy and mayhem than the original in this sped-up and stripped-down version.
And yet, for all the terrific musicians– including Jim Lauderdale and Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals– and a good set of songs, what the project lacks is cohesion; indeed, it’s almost difficult to think of it as a proper Costello album, as its shakey construction makes it feel more like a batch of leftovers. The album was recorded quickly, in the same manner as last year’s wonderful Momofuku, and while that slapdash technique yields some wonderfully ramshackle performances, it would seem that Costello never bothered to write a set of songs for this project. Thus, he throws together a batch of tunes from his aborted musical about Hans Christian Anderson, reworks one older song (“Complicated Shadows”), covers Bing Crosby, and puts his own stamp on a couple of songs he wrote for other people.
In other words: It’s a hodgepodge, and not even this fine cast of players is able to pull it all together into something focused and unified. As such, the project feels meandering and aimless, which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the sinking feeling that this whole project is simply a vehicle for jetissoning some songs that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. So it feels more like a B-sides set or a fans-only compilation than a full-on Elvis Costello album, but, as far as such things go, it’s by no means an unpleasant listen.