Monday, September 20, 2004

Elvis Costello - The Delivery Man

Sometimes it feels like John Kell and I are the only people left on the planet who still await every new Elvis Costello album with keen anticipation. Not even last year's admittedly treacly 'North' has lowered my high expectations of this new project, for which Costello has concocted a song cycle based on a central character (Abel - the Delivery Man), and his relationship with three different women. Sometimes these women are given their own voices, which has given Costello the opportunity to collaborate with two of his favourite female singers, the gutsy Lucinda Williams and the heavenly Emmylou Harris. Given this information, I have to admit that I was expecting 'The Delivery Man' to be a return to the rootsy country sound of 'King of America'. In fact, it transpires that there are plenty of moments that sound closer in spirit to Costello's other landmark release of 1986 'Blood and Chocolate', a visceral masterpiece and one of the finest albums of the 1980s. 'The Delivery Man' is therefore the follow-up proper to Costello's first release with the Imposters, 'When I Was Cruel'. Given its five-star rating in Mojo, and broadly positive reviews elsewhere, this is an album that has forced critics usually indifferent to Costello's later work to finally start recognising his quality.

Where 'When I Was Cruel' deployed production techniques, drum loops and adventurous arrangement to modernise Costello's approach, 'The Delivery Man' is notable for the rawness of its sound. It is hard-hitting, clattering and immediate, characterised by the rampaging energy of its backing bands. Even its ballads sound pure, striking and stripped of affectations. Costello's voice, still beoming more convincing with each album he releases, is frequently left exposed. There are some occasions where it cracks slightly, and therefore lends the material an appealing vulnerability. The drum sound is particularly riotous, rough and boomy, and reminds me a little of the clattering skeletal kit used so effectively on 1994's 'Brutal Youth'. In essence, the production is bare and unobtrusive, and there are numerous hints of earlier work. Like all Costello albums, however, 'The Delivery Man' coheres marvellously, and stands as another distinctive work in one of the most impressive catalogues in pop history. It would be stretching the truth to proclaim 'The Delivery Man' as one of Costello's most original albums, but it certainly packs a powerful punch that allows for both highly positive first impressions and a lingering sense of its achievement. It is an album with clear reference points, both to the popular music that Costello admires, and also to certain points in his own mighty back catalogue.

If the blast of distorted pop that was '45' served as an opening statement of intent on 'When I Was Cruel', 'Button My Lip' outperforms that function for 'The Delivery Man'. It is based on a minimal arrangement and forceful vocal presence, underpinned by some rampant drumming, guitar outbursts, and an impressively unrestrained Steve Nieve's, whose unpredictable stabbing chords and ingenious quotations from Bernstein's 'America' make this one of the album's most entertaining cuts. It is followed, somewhat uncomfortably, by the soul-tinged country of 'Country Darkness', which is bolstered by some wonderfully lilting pedal steel from John McPhee and a chorus of exceptional quality. The juxtaposition sets up the dual personality that characterises 'The Delivery Man'. Perhaps more than any other Costello album, it seems consciously divided between raucous explosions of energy and emotive white soul ballads. One of the more negative comments I've read about this album came in a review in Time Out, which claimed that Costello desparately wanted to occupy the hybrid country-soul territory so brilliantly claimed by Dan Penn, but that he had neither the songwriting instincts nor the vocal chops to manage it. Whilst Dan Penn is undoubtedly fair reference point, I would more than dispute the claim made by the reviewer - and this is my cue for a somewhat lengthy digression....

...Costello has received so much criticism over the past fifteen years or so for distancing himself from his volatile, angry and spiky past from critics seemingly desparate for him to remake 'Thie Year's Model' every time he releases a new album. The easiest target have been his excursions into classical music and 'jazz' (although I would strongly debate that that term really applies to either 'North' with its dinner club, sugary balladry or 'Painted From Memory', with its admittedly schmaltzy, but mostly successful orchestral arrangements). Over the course of a restlessly inventive and consistently intelligent career, it's hardly as if he hasn't earned the right to embrace unfamiliar forms. If they are not always successful, they are at least healthy signs that Costello is an artist disinclined to remain static. Anyone who has read his greatest albums article in Vanity Fair will appreciate the tremendous breadth of his musical knowledge, and this undoubtedly makes his more recent endeavours make much more sense. He has also taken a great deal of flak more generally for his concentration on the ballad form. These criticisms first started to rear their ugly head with the release of 'All This Useless Beauty'. This album was widely criticised because it consisted mostly of songs written for other people, but I would argue that it is a more cohesive work than many gave it credit for, and the first time when Costello's love of soul music was really given free reign. It contained a number of stirring mid-tempo ballads, particularly outstanding were Why Can't A Man Stand Alone', 'Poor Fractured Atlas', and 'The Other End of the Telescope'. If 'When I Was Cruel' largely eschewed the ballad template, Costello has returned to it again with considerable success on 'The Delivery Man'. The connection between the ballads of 'ATUB' and 'The Delivery Man' is brought home to me by the presence here of 'Either Side of The Same Town', a song co-written with the Stateside records writer and producer Jerry Ragovoy, who helped pen a number of hits for the sublime Garnett Mimms in the 1960s. It is highly reminiscent stylistically of 'Why Can't A Man Stand Alone', a song originally written for soul legend Sam Moore. Also present is a version of 'The Judgement', a song originally penned for the gigantic presence that is Solomon Burke.

Some of the best tracks here feature the peerless harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris. Whilst her recent albums have established her as an outstanding singer-songwriter in her own right, its easy to forget that she remains one of the very greatest duet vocalists in the world. Costello has gone on record to state his admiration for the duets Harris recorded with the legendary Gram Parsons, and its clear that these tracks at the very least represent a tip of the hat to those timeless songs. I was a little concerned that the Costello/Harris collaboration could result merely in two utterly distinctive voices battling to be heard, much like the harsh conflict between the voices of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. This fear thankfully proves to have been completely unfounded. Harris remains a deftly controlled and ethereal presence, complementing Costello's compelling vibrato with consummate ease. 'Heart Shaped Bruise' is simply gorgeous, a touching and affecting lament with carefully controlled vocal performances. 'Nothing Clings Like Ivy' is, true to its title, also a song that lingers powerfully in the mind. Both strive for the same timeless quality that informs the duets of Parsons/Harris or George Jones and Tammy Wynette. 'The Scarlet Tide', another duet with Harris, closes the album, but sounds slightly incongruous, stripped back to just ukelelee and voice. It has an appalachian feel, but also bears a striking resemblance to the sound of the Magnetic Fields on their recent album 'i'.

Elswhere, there is rollicking clamour and clang. 'Bedlam' rattles along with an insistent energy and drive, with the same kind of spirit that made '15 Petals' one of the highlights on 'When I Was Cruel'. On 'There's A Story In Your Voice', Costello duels with a marvellously slurred and drawling Lucinda Williams. 'Needle Time', whilst only marginally less rancorous musically, features a wonderfully snarling vocal. These tracks once again demonstrate that the ensemble playing of the Imposters is simply peerless. Steve Nieve is particularly outstanding, his piano playing informed by gospel and blues and lending both a learned and attacking quality to the music. Those critics who have chastised Costello for decaying into 'soft' maturity ought to take note, and then return to 'Brutal Youth', 'All This Useless Beauty' and 'When I Was Cruel' and discover how excellent they all are. Perhaps best of all is the title track, caught somewhere more unusual between the ballad and the belter and defined by its steady shifting of time signatures. It's a story song of sorts, and it casts a mysterious and brooding shadow. The playing is subtle and distinguished.

It's also worth pointing out that Costello is mostly on winning form lyrically as well. 'When I Was Cruel' certainly had its fair share of mordant observations and impassioned snarls, but it also occasionally suffered from laboured rants and muddled metaphors ('she had the attention span of warm cellophane' springs to mind). Here, both when in character and when not, he demonstrates his talent for writing barbarous, pithy diatribes on human relationships. and tension between the sexes. It's not without humour too - 'Monkey To Man' is an inspired update of Dave Bartholomew's 'The Monkey', and 'The Delivery Man' contains the line 'in a certain light he looked like Elvis'. There is nothing here that seems forced or unnatural, and even when he is clearly referencing established greats, Costello's own distinctive voice cuts through. He has gone on record to state that 'The Delivery Man' contains some of his best recorded singing. He is right. His voice has developed into a versatile and convincing instrument, with impressive power and range.

In essence, 'The Delivery Man' is a dependably excellent album, which sees Costello extending his reach, often looking backwards in order to move forwards. It is packed with outstanding ensemble performances and tenacious, compelling songwriting. Rant over. Go buy it.

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