Hardly a day goes by that we hear about another performer leaving their chosen career trajectory and taking a swing at country music.Some of these travelers deeply feel the need to honor the history, the tradition, of the genre. They also bring something new and interesting to the sound. Then there are the carpetbaggers. The ones who’s career have a justly stalled and are looking to find a new audience in a genre they mistakenly see as an easy get. They carry with them the foul stench of mediocrity they cultivated from whence they came.
The latter category is too painful to detail here but a prime example of the former is Elvis Costello. A singer/songwriter so accustomed to straddling, hopping and distorting genres that people are surprised when he returns to his earlier literate pop-punk roots. Costello’s love of American Southern music is well documented. The established Angry Young (British) Man takes a sharp turn from edgy punk-pop to head to Nashville and cut 1981’s Almost Blue which featured songs by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Gram Parsons. The post-divorce roots-folk of 1986’s T. Bone Burnett produced King of America. 2004’s The Delivery Man featuring duets with Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams – who he also performed with in a CMT Crossroads. There is the Costello T. Bone Burnett penned Scarlet Tide was used in the film Cold Mountain, nominated for a 2004 Academy Award and performed by Costello it at the awards ceremony with Alison Krauss, who also sang the song on the official soundtrack. Point being his newest Americana release Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is not a hard diversion nor a lark for Mr. MacManus.
It doesn’t help that you’re sound is so distinctive that people start to harp on it like it’s a curse. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane like it’s spiritual cousins Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Neil Young’s Harvest and the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street seems to lose points some detractors because the work reflects the unique characteristics the artists brings with them when they cross the Americana tracks. If you prefer your music by outsiders to be cleansed of all traces of the performers unique earlier style, well, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is not for you.
The album took three days to create in a Nashville studio (March 31 to April 2, 2008) thus beating out the usually fleet Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, which took 9 days (February 12, 1969 – February 21, 1969) is with producer T Bone Burnett- whos is becoming the go-to-guy when you want to do Americana – and focuses on Costello’s own work rearranged for a crack band featuring Stuart Duncan on banjo and fiddle, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, , Dennis Crouch on bass, Mike Compton on mandolin and Mr. Americana himself Jim Lauderdale lending honey harmony vocals to counter Costello’s (in)famous keen.
Things get off to a nice starts with Down Among The Wines And Spirits, originally written for Ms. Loretta Lynn, is a lolling down-and-out drinking song featuring the kind of wordplay Costello has become famous for (there’s that uniqueness again!) Complicated Shadows, first recorded for 1996’s All This Useless Beauty and originally written for Johnny Cash, gets the amped-up greasy blues treatment that would make Tony Joe White smile.
The beautifully sad I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came was penned by Costello and aforementioned Loretta Lynn is lovely but brings to mind the coldness suggested in the title. My All Time Doll is a hillbilly cabaret number featuring the excellent accordion work by Jeff Taylor and a demo from All This Useless Beauty Rhino reissue Hidden Shame gets a great rousing makeover.
How Deep Is the Red?, She Was No Good,”She Handed Me a Mirror, and Red Cotton are from Costello’s unfinished Hans Christian Andersen chamber opera The Secret Songs (did I mention that man was eclectic?) As prolific as Costello is, he is known to rework his own songs for different occasions, and although these songs do carry trace elements of their classical origins they sound right at home here.
Sulphur to Sugarcane was written by Costello & T Bone Burnett for (but not used) in the Sean Penn 2006 film All The King’s Men. The song sounds like a bawdy ragtime-jazz response to Johnny Cash’s I’ve Been Everywhere as imagined by Leon Redbone. The Crooked line is rumored to have been an unused song for the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line and Costello is reported to have said that it’s “…the only song I’ve ever written about fidelity that is without any irony.” Here the song is a Cajun-flavored duet with Emmylou Harris with Emmylou way too far down in the mix, or just right, depending on your feeling about Ms. Emmylou’s disctinctive style. Changing Partners is a more-or-less faithful rendition of a the ubber-crooner Bing Crosby’ classic number of lost love.
Is Secret, Profane & Sugarcane a great country or Americana album as you might expect from a seasoned vet? No. Is it a great Elvis Costello record? No, it hits just about in the mid-range of his canon. But with the likes of Jewel, Miley Cyrus and Kid Rock paraded as examples of roots and country music’s future Costello has given us a lovely, lively work to brace us out of that nightmare.