New Wave Icon Kidnaps Old School Melodies

Elvis Costello
National Ransom
Hear Music

Punk, new wave and horn-rimmed glasses: That’s how we know Elvis Costello. But since the ‘90s, Costello has been experimenting with more styles than we can keep up with and his newest album, National Ransom, is no exception.

Costello and producer T Bone Burnett fuse nearly every traditional American genre, from blues in songs like “My Lovely Jezebel” and rockabilly in country-rock track “I Lost You” to crooner melodies in “A Voice In The Dark.” It would sound like authentic Americana if it weren’t for, you know, that British accent.

Title track “National Ransom,” along with the album’s cover — which features a well-dressed Wall Street wolf toting a suitcase of burning money — is as strong a piece of social commentary as when Costello criticized former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s administration in 1989.  Both Costello’s cover art and lyrics are a barefaced critique of the economic situation that we dug ourselves into. Plus, the rollicking rock track — with the addition of ex-Attractions bandmate Steve Nieve’s organ — almost feels like an early Costello hit.

But there aren’t many more throwbacks to Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ classics. The majority of the album is spent indulging the songwriter’s obscure musical obsessions. “A Voice In The Dark” gives us Costello as a crooner out of the days of Tin Pan Alley. At one moment we hear Bing Crosby-esque deep trembles backed by light and quick violins, and in the next instant Costello’s familiar nasal drone takes over.

Costello’s voice wavers from deep, heart-wrenching tones to upbeat country staccatos in “A Slow Drag With Josephine,” which gives us one of the songwriter’s many character sketches of a woman facing betrayal.  In essence, the whole album is a collection of such vintage odes, offering a taste of heartache from a distant time.

National Ransom is a real culmination of Elvis Costello’s 30-plus years of performance and artistry, but unlike his Attractions’ glory days, the album is more of a time-traveling journey through American musical history. Nonetheless, fans of rock ’n’ roll’s beginnings certainly won’t be able to pass it up.

But here’s fair warning: Don’t go expecting “Pump It Up.” The horn-rimmed glasses may still be there, but the new wave sure ain’t. (7/10)

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