Last week, Elvis Costello released his 25th studio album (give or take a few compilations and outtakes) in a flurry of TV appearances and critical acclaim. In the L.A. Times, Randy Lewis calls the record “little short of dazzling.” You won’t get any argument here.
For a few decades now, Costello has made music so literate, so eclectic, that despite the best journalistic efforts, he can really only be compared to himself. So in the interest of offering a point of reference, I will go out on a limb and say that National Ransom is more like Spike than like any of his other releases in that this is an overfull, varied collection of songs that draw from multiple musical genres, influences and ideas—though there’s a strong roots feel overall. Like Secret Profane and Sugarcane, (2008), National Ransom was produced by Costello’s longtime friend and colleague, T Bone Burnett, and the top-notch bluegrass group assembled for the former album, The Sugarcanes, also perform on Ransom. Other participants include Costello’s current rock ’n’ roll band, The Imposters, plus guests Vince Gill and the miraculous Buddy Miller, among others.
This revolving roster make big countrified rock ’n’ roll, like the title track—a clever send-up of the current financial mess—or they can be quiet, dark and bent as on the jazz-influenced “One Bell Ringing.” “Five Small Words,” which has been featured in numerous live sets, finally makes an appearance; the first time I heard it, I was sure it was a cover—a rocking little song so well-formed that it sounded like it had been around for years (“Five small words: don’t you love me anymore?”). Costello also carries on his National Ransom theme by borrowing from depression-era sounds: He has told audiences that the voice-and-strings arrangement on “A Slow Drag With Josephine” is “what rock ’n’ roll sounded like in 1921”; likewise, the closing tune, “A Voice in the Dark,” has a charming throw-back tone. But wait, there’s more.
Years ago, I read an interview with Costello where he said that he still buys every George Jones album that comes out because there’s always going to be at least one song that has that “thing” that he loves about Jones’ music. Along those lines, that “thing” on National Ransom is the song “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving,” a blues ballad that Costello sings the hell out of. For all of the inspired arrangements, smart turns of phrase and songcraft on Costello’s records (in the story song “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” he actually rhymes “out of focus” with “tuberculosis”), there’s nothing like those moments when his vocal really takes over.
Producer: T Bone Burnett. Engineer: Mike Piersante. Additional engineering: Drew Bollman, Joey Turner, Jason Wormer, Drew Bollman. Editing: Jason Wormer. Studios: Sound Emporium (Nashville), The Village (West L.A.), The House (Nashville), Electro Magnetic Studios (L.A.). Mastering: Gavin Lurssen/Lurssen Mastering (Hollywood).