Elvis Costello doesn’t so much follow trends as he sets his own. Since originally being tagged as a punk artist, the London-native has become a chameleon-like troubadour of, perhaps, the most versatile variety popular music has ever seen. He’s used the twang of country to lure a sultry female in “Alison”, he’s utilized the bravery of soul to tell people to Get Happy (1980). Somehow along the line, he even managed to help Austin Powers woo a certain Milwaukee-bred fox (Heather Graham) with long-time balladeer Burt Bacharach. What else can this man do to prove his “sound” still resonates with the legions of fans he’s amassed long the way? It appears he’s gone back once again, with Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an album constructed on the foundation of a slide-guitar-driven brush with love, nostalgia, and the brutal truth of longing.
Costello’s never been typecast as a one-note sort of guy. Perhaps it’s with this creative schizophrenia that he finds his muse; also a constantly evolving caterpillar of ingenuity that cannot be stapled to one genre. Either way, die-hard Costello fans best ready themselves for yet another foray into previously uncharted sonic waters.
He begins his album-long delve into the horse-and-wagon era with a stunningly introspective ode to the grief of lost love with “I Felt the Chill”.
There’s a difference
In the way that you kiss me
There’s a sadness in your eyes
That you can’t hide
It’s not so much the lyrics themselves as how Costello channels actual despair in his delivery. He’s always been that tongue-in-cheek sort of singer—Quick with his wits, while garnering a relatable sense of humor. This is a song you would likely hear a weathered, grizzled old man croon in the back corner of a rustic saloon, miles from anywhere you’d feel comfortable calling home. What Costello’s able to do is transcend his own gawky image for a moment, and make his listeners see past the Buddy Holly frames, and into the heart that beats within.
It isn’t the greatest love song ever written, but it’s on par with anything Neil Young conjured up in his borderline brilliant singer-songwriter phase of the early ’70s. A noble tip of the cap to those who’ve done it better.
On “I Dreamed of My Old Lover,” he does much the same thing. On this track, however, it’s hardly as moving an homage, seeming like a forced effort to find a deeper trench in which love can slowly die. That’s the thing about sad-sap loves songs. One some albums, one ‘great’ effort is enough.
On “How Deep is the Red”, he finds his stride. A bomp-bomp-bomp song that finds a subtle, catchy, hook long enough to sound memorable. This is a song you listen to while sipping an excellent micro-brew on a pier, with a small group of friends you couldn’t imagine your life without. Fortunately, the depression-laden tone is set aside in moments like these, and you’ll be quite grateful for it.
As a whole entity, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane sounds like an album made for a very specific fan base. Those who order straight bourbon at a pub, wistfully glance into the distance before sunsets, and spend evening after evening at their local honky-tonk, helplessly chasing far younger girls down far longer paths.
Rest assured, there are moments in which you feel like you’re listening to a Nashville-bred songwriter who’s just found their niche. Elvis Costello is nothing if not a great mimic of dissimilarly-inspired musicians, but it would be in his best interest to not wander this far off the beaten path again.