CD Review: Elvis Costello "National Ransom"

There was a time when I would look forward to the street date of each new Elvis Costello record like a 5-year-old looks forward to Christmas Day. Then Costello released "King Of America" in 1986 and proceeded to knock the wind out of my sails.

Ever since then, I have approached each new Elvis Costello record with different levels of ambivalence and, upon listening, I still end up feeling a little disappointed. It isn't because the albums are entirely without merit, but that Costello seems to view each new album as a project with which to experiment. I liken it to a legendary short-distance runner leaving his sport at the height of his career to concentrate on weightlifting one minute, ping-pong the next, and so on when what he should be doing is the one thing that he does better than anyone else on the planet.

In Costello's case, what he does best is write scathingly injurious rock songs documenting every shade of betrayal known to the human heart, with the occasional heartfelt and desirous love ballad thrown in for good measure. The last thing these ears want to hear is Elvis Costello growing old gracefully. If anything, I want to hear the former Declan MacManus scratching and clawing, refusing to go quietly into the night. Hence, I have no use for Costello collaborations with anyone other than The Attractions, or The Impostors as they are now called (minus bassist Bruce Thomas).

So, having said that, "National Ransom" does have a lot going for it - mostly the inclusion of all members of the Impostors throughout the album, production by the normally solid T-Bone Burnett, and guest appearances by Buddy Miller, Marc Ribot and Leon Russell.

The album begins with a full-band rocker ("National Ransom") that sets the tone for what we hope is a less lethargic record than 2009's "Secret, Profane And Sugarcane". Sure, "Jimmie Standing In The Rain", "Stations Of The Cross" and "A Slow Drag With Josephine" are nice enough songs, but do nothing more than slow the pace and provide fodder for the NPR crowd to link to on their Facebook pages. It isn't until the album's sixth track ("Church Underground") that we feel the first drops of venomous spittle from Costello's rigid lips.

And then it's back to the chamber music with "You Hung The Moon", a certain cure for insomnia.

A couple tunes later, Costello awakens me from my slumber with the appropriately-titled "I Lost You", which is a track that wonderfully recalls a time when a song like this would have been considered filler, a breather from the furious pace of his early efforts, but is now one of the more upbeat cuts to be found.

"My Lovely Jezebel", Costello's collaboration with Leon Russell, is stunningly unremarkable; a decidedly paint-by-numbers cut from two legends who could have ignited some sparks if so inspired.

This, of course, I blame on producer Burnett, who is too busy staying out of Costello's way to be the necessary sand in Costello's oyster. Costello's musical downfall is the complacency that comes with happiness so, short of personal upheaval, Costello is in dire need of a musical partner who gets him to turn off the cruise-control and step on the fucking gas.

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