Soundchecks Music Reviews

Delivery Man by Elvis Costello

Lost Highway 986372-7

Elvis Costello and The Imposters

review by Steven Hampton

As I wasn't particularly taken with Costello's album North (2003) - a wearying collection of sourly soulful slow-treadmill material that's only salvaged by the CD's bonus track, Impatience (which thankfully sounds far more like the man familiar to us post-punk pop fans), I was pleased to find this latest release ably redresses the balance somewhat with a showcase of mature rock and catchy pop stuff. The greater range of musical forms and styles is what's most impressive about this recording, which has since been variously described as notably theatrical in approach, or a 'song cycle'. Basically, it's what used to be called a concept album before the format and term became unfashionable.

Most of the songs favour Costello's deceptively minimalist arrangements of nonetheless frequently complex compositions, presented in a gritty, no-nonsense manner that's been unhelpfully and very unfairly compared to clattering pub-band skiffle. Honestly, that's wholly misleading at best and insulting to the artist at worst. The obvious contrast between the opening tracks; the chaotic Button My Lip and the laidback Country Darkness, sets up the affecting dynamic between seemingly improvised playing and tightly restrained ballads. There's A Story In Your Voice benefits from Costello's salt 'n' vinegar duet with Lucinda Williams, and it's perhaps the first song here which directly clues us in to the album's principal themes - ostensibly concerned with three fictional women (Vivien, Geraldine, Ivy) of varied ages and their differing personal relationships with Abel.

Of course, this being Elvis Costello, there's a frankly incredible amount of detailing and involvement in the lyrics, some of which is blatant yet much of it is subtle. Bedlam flings out broad hints toward a dizzying array of social, political, religious and cultural targets: contemptuous of rhetoric, money, emblems, and conventional wisdom all so unreliable in current times. Monkey To Man is surely the keenest and most popular track here. "Big and useless as he has become/ With his crying statues and his flying bomb/ Goes 'round acting like the chosen one/ Excuse us if we treat him like our idiot cousin" - its sing-along value is typical of vintage Costello.

Nothing Clings Like Ivy is the first of three songs here that feature Emmylou Harris. The Name Of This Thing Is Not Love has a repetitive chorus that sticks in the back of your mind for ages. Arguably the most eloquent song title here is Heart Shaped Bruise (also with Emmylou Harris). The darker implications of She's Pulling Out The Pin have proved controversial, with lyrics that suggest a truly righteous suicide bomber. The restlessness of Needle Time leads up to the stark realisation: "Sometimes I feel just like committing a crime" - while the twanging guitar of its slow-beat chorus conjures an uneasiness that borders on menace. Some critics have claimed there's a strong antiAmerican thread running through many of the songs but I think, if anything, Costello is simply pointing out the same old traits of stupidity and ignorance that remain a nagging curse upon the shambling mass of global humanity, irrespective of nationality or creed.

The Judgement cleverly mixes a tale of rejection ("Guilty of nothing but loving you") with criminal court clich�s. Closing track The Scarlet Tide, another duet with Ms Harris, has Costello on ukulele for its only musical accompaniment. It doesn't look very promising on the lyric page but, in a testament to Costello's skill as both songwriter and performer, it quickly becomes eerily haunting after just a few plays.

Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press