National Ransom

The title track of Elvis Costello's latest album is something of a musical State of the Union address, and apparently even the rock stars feel like they're hustling while the fat cats run wild: "Meanwhile we're working every day paying off the National Ransom." Costello belts these lines out with his inimitable venom. The song's groove could be an eccentric cousin to "Pump It Up," and with Jerry Douglas on conventional lead guitar, and Marc Ribot (best known for the junkyard avant-garde angularity of his playing with Tom Waits) on the artfully atonal one, Costello bemoans fiscal irresponsibility while sounding like the rock and roll Cassandra he has always been (this is the man who, in song, longed for the day when he could tramp the dirt down on Maggie Thatcher's grave).


Since his 1977 breakout, Costello has covered every conceivable genre: jazz, string quartet, opera, country, Celtic, bluegrass, cabaret, and beyond, yet when he returns to rock, he goes back to the drawing board, sometimes with an enhanced palette (like the Steely Dan chords of "The Spell That You Cast"). New directions are also discernable: "Church Underground" suggests an unearthed Catholicism, no shock for the former Declan Patrick Aloysius, named for a saint, who claimed at the beginning of his career that he was only motivated by "revenge and guilt."  Oh, the places he would go over three decades later: "The trivial secrets buried with profound / It's enough to put a Church Underground." 


And yet this is not a Catholic album, even as it has his inimitable catholicity of genres. National Ransom dabbles in rockabilly, with touches of bluegrass and country, but it is particularly haunting when it harks back to around 1920, when Costello sounds like he could be auditioning for Boardwalk Empire. "Slow Drag With Josephine" could have dazzled a Vaudeville crowd, and "You Hung the Moon" beguiles with lush chords and the most confident baritone Costello has ever recorded. But the song that hits hardest jump-cuts to the 30s. "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," a cinematic narrative of desperation and beauty, strummed with a Django-like swing, a song that could have lulled Hooverville breadlines. It tells a story of a sad Jimmie Rodgers imitator just trying to get a gig, a "forgotten man" and an "indifferent nation," and the images are devastating, apropos, alas, for 2010. Some of us work to pay off the national ransom, and many among us are desperately looking for any work at all. These are Elvis Costello's songs for the new depression, and they are at their most compelling when they sound like an older one.

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