Under Review: Elvis Costello – National Ransom

I really don’t like having to qualify my love for Elvis Costello’s music, but it’s become a necessity.  From his classic early output to his mid-career slump (which some might argue is still happening), being a fan of Costello hasn’t always been easy.  Some of his last few albums, including When I Was Cruel, The River In Reverse and Momofuku were truly great, but that greatness was offset by indulgent genre experiments and a bad case of diuretic pen.  For his third album in as many years, Costello combines his own musical roots with the more traditional sounds he’s been exploring lately.  National Ransom is, above all else, a very busy album.  With sixteen songs in just over an hour, the album packs in both of Costello’s current backing bands, and the result is a big and often overwhelming sound.  The opening title track sounds like what you’d expect from a collision between The Imposters and The Sugarcanes: definitely twangy, with distinct rock raggedness.  National Ransom rarely sticks to any one sound, with acoustic numbers (like the bouncy “A Slow Drag With Josephine”) standing strong alongside honky-tonk struts (“My Lovely Jezebel”).  In fact, it’s the slower songs on National Ransom that are the highlights; a rare situation on Costello’s recent works.

What holds back many of the upbeat songs are lyrics that are far too complicated to be catchy.  Not even “The Spell That You Cast,” with its call-and-response makes as much of an impact as the more somber, jazzy numbers.  Perhaps it’s the lazy fluidity with which wordy songs like “That’s Not The Part Of Him That You’re Leaving” unfold that helps the listener take everything in on the first listen or two.  All of Costello’s recent efforts, no matter how essential they are overall, contain at least one genuinely worthwhile composition.  You’ll have to wait for it on National Ransom, as “A Voice In The Dark” is the very last track.  Like all the other tunes in the set, the libretto is a bit thick, but the cowboy-meets-vaudeville arrangement is incredibly charming.  If Costello had written an original song for Delovely (which I suppose would render the whole theme of the film moot), “A Voice In The Dark” would be an easy choice for inclusion.  Does that song alone make National Ransom totally worth your time? Perhaps not, but the album shows that Costello still has plenty to offer, and that he won’t rest until all his stories have been told.

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~ by E. on November 5, 2010.

One Response to “Under Review: Elvis Costello – National Ransom”

  1. Totally agree that Costello trips over himself lyrically on National Ransom. But the record is so much fun I don’t really mind.

    Which records don’t you like? I’ve come around to almost every Costello release with time, so it’s interesting to know.

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