Elvis Costello: “National Ransom”
Elvis Costello has spent the better part of his career– intermittently, perhaps– chasing down the elusive spirit of American myth and music. It goes back much farther, certainly, than his more recent stabs at American R&B and jazz, farther back even than King of America, his lived-in, mythology-chasing country-folk reinvention with T-Bone Burnett. You could trace it back at least as far as his Gram-worshiping country covers disc Almost Blue— we’re back in 1981 now– or even to the songs “Different Finger” and “Luxembourg,” from the album Trust, released earlier in that same year. But really, one might as well go back to the beginning– to his off-the-cuff invocation of his hip-shaking namesake on songs like “Mystery Dance” and “Sneaky Feelings.” And that goes all the way back to his debut; he was just another angry young Brit back then, his classical dalliances and operatic aspirations then unimaginable.
I’ll make the argument that National Ransom— album #33, but who’s counting?– is his most seamless and sophisticated assimilation of American musics and myths thus far. It’s another T-Bone production, but it’s both more ambitious than King of America— its vision of said musics here extending far beyond country-folk and the occasional rambling blues– and more deliberate than Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an album of tossed-off charms diluted by the sinking suspicion that it was pieced together from table scraps. Ransom is wider-ranging, less a study of a particular musical idiom than a cinematic travelogue of the last hundred years or so of songs and stories from the land of want and plenty. Each song is a snippet, a scene from either the too-painful present or an age gone by but never forgotten; the music reflects the literary scope of the writing, moving with deft purpose through stringband numbers and jazzy torch songs, country weepers and the earliest formations of American rhythm and blues. The final song– “A Voice in the Dark”– could have been manufactured in Tin Pan Alley, and heard in any New York nightclub circa 1930.
The songs are held in place by the thread of history; these are not just American songs but American stories, each track a different paradigm, a new perspective, on the same central truths. This is an album of betrayal, a set of lover’s laments from the jilted and the downtrodden; sometimes the one who did the jilting is another lover, elsewhere it’s America and her dream, and the distinction becomes less important as the album progresses. The title song– “for the bankrupt times,” Costello says– is a howling indictment of the wolf on the album’s front cover; he’s stolen all the money, and set it all on fire. The betrayal here is perpetuated by Wall Street, by the government, by all of us; Costello makes it clear that we’re in a tar pit of our own making, and if you think it’s the last time we’ll get stuck in the mire, consider the song’s blurring of ripped-from-the-headlines urgency and its backward glances to 1929. This, and everything here, is strung along by the thread of history; it could have sprung from the pen of Faulkner or Fitzgerald, Nathanael West or Walt Whitman.
The origins of the music are less lofty. This one spun off of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, but if that one marked the first tentative meeting of the ensemble, this one is something more carefully orchestrated, musically integrative and thematically unified. Costello and Burnett cut it in Nashville in under two weeks, with a large group of players that includes members of Costello’s Impostors and his Sugarcanes, along with Marc Ribot, Vince Gill, Leon Russell, and Buddy Miller. The players are arranged in various permutations and ensembles, but not with the tossed-off informality of the last record so much as a sense of service to what each song requires. There are some seriously groove-oriented rock and roll combos here, and their orientation is strictly toward movement and momentum; historicity becomes a blur, to the extent that Steve Nieve’s farfisa organ and Mike Compton’s mandolin show up as unexpected flavorings, as though everyone was simply caught up in the generous spirit of these sessions. Elsewhere, Costello strums an acoustic guitar with only Dennis Crouch’s upright bass supporting him; he is joined by orchestral ensembles that swell to over two dozen pieces; he unites his players around the warm strains of Nieve’s grand piano.
The rock songs here are generally very good ones. “National Ransom” opens the record with what could have been an Attractions classic– a sense heightened by Nieve’s presence on the organ– but Marc Ribot slashes at the guitar with an electric mayhem Costello himself generally avoided. It’s vintage EC, but also a decidedly old-fashioned rock and roll number; untouched by fashion or trends, it could have come from the pen of an Ian Hunter or an Alejandro Escovedo. The other rockers come in variable flavors: “Five Small Words” is a dark-tinged country shuffle, “I Lost You” is a roaring road song with high and lonesome steel guitar, “The Spell That You Cast” is vintage R&B, and “My Lovely Jezebel” is a Leon Russell number, a jaunty roadhouse piano tune. These tracks are less ornate, narratively speaking, and more prone to first-person confessions; I hear them as transmissions from America’s radios and jukeboxes, from the early 30s to the present day, the lyrics turning the album’s themes of betrayal and deceit into anthems of a history both cultural and personal.
But I tend to find the other songs– more musically layered, more nuanced in their grasp of history and narrative thrust– are the more interesting ones. Some of them are playful, almost trifles– a cheerfully old-timey parlor song called “A Slow Drag with Josephine,” reportedly a hoot and a holler at recent concerts; others are outright masterful in their construction– the penultimate song is an absolutely spellbinding narrative of paranoia and distrust, written with T-Bone, called “All These Strangers.” In particular, I’m drawn to a couple of songs that might bare a very loose resemblance to orchestral pop or chamber jazz– arranged, as they are, around Nieve’s grand piano– but harder to pin down than some of EC’s past excursions in this direction. “Stations of the Cross” reminds us that Costello’s take on American music extends not only to Almost Blue‘s country weepers and The Delivery Man‘s rambling rock, but also to the classicist pop found in North; here, though, the edges are frayed, both song and performance several shades darker, as Costello sings of a religious elite who keep a pious distance from anything resembling real human pain or suffering; his liner notes suggest that it may or may not be set in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, “Church Underground” encompasses tumultuous times and harsh modes of redemption via the story of a nightclub singer who’s forced to slum it; the backbeat here is anchored in rock, Costello’s voice a pained sneer.
There is an abundance of religious imagery here, as in the hushed, haunted folk tune “Bullets for the Newborn King.” On the surface it’s the story of a political assassination somewhere in South America; the doers of the dirty deed realize too late that they may have martyred their homeland’s only real source of hope, and the song’s title seems to suggest a certain redemptive/historical parallel that’s echoed in the voice-in-the-wilderness prophetics of “A Voice in the Dark.” And yet, this is a Costello album that emphasizes story over the mere cleverness of his wordplay or obscurity of his allusions; and so we have a song like “You Hung the Moon,” written about a family who contacts a fraud psychic to conduct a seance, hoping to find closure with a lost son who was hanged as a military deserter. Deserters and charlatans, the gullible and the desperate– these are themes that lie at the heart of this record, and their curious strength comes from how the songwriter traces them through the years and through stories that might otherwise seem to have little in common.
To that end, there are some fine character sketches here, one of my favorites being “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” about a phony London cowboy performer who’s been abandoned by the fickle public he once so loyally entertained. It’s worth noting that this song– which, with its mention of an “indifferent nation,” articulates some of the record’s concerns fairly directly– is actually set in Britain instead of the States, suggesting that Costello’s aims here are not exactly political, at least not in any conventional sense. I also love that the song is echoed later in its more hopeful counterpart, “Dr. Watson, I Presume,” also about an entertainer– in this case, bluegrass stalwart Doc Watson. Costello met him a couple years back and was obviously rather enamored of him; this song is a series of moments, of regrets and opportunities, mistakes and strange coincidences, that add up to a life well-lived, with purpose and with grace. It’s a hopeful heart for a record made for desperate times and a bankrupt era– a humble nod from the once and future King of America.