Album review: Elvis Costello’s ‘National Ransom’


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As a singer, songwriter and observer of human foibles, Elvis Costello is little short of dazzling on his latest outing. It certifies him as both the modern-day Cole Porter for the effortless way he marries sophisticated lyrics with elegant music, and contemporary counterpart to Brecht-Weill for his unrelenting skill at creating and inhabiting unforgettable characters and their dark situations.

Collaborating once again with T Bone Burnett and his crew of musical magicians, Costello fearlessly takes on rampant greed (the title track), society’s discards (“Jimmie Standing in the Rain”), abandoned love (“I Lost You”), romantic paranoia (“Dr. Watson, I Presume”) and myriad other topics in what feels like a sequel song cycle to 2009’s “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.” This one delves even deeper into the art-song style, sometimes at the expense of the rootsy Americana fun that characterized its predecessor.


Costello and his accomplices cover the gamut — including the Brit pub-rock thump of “National Ransom,” the stunning jazzy pop of “Slow Drag With Josephine” and the dark cabaret lament of “You Hung the Moon.” At times, he happily ignores the hobgoblin of consistent time signature and revels in oblique lyrics; a few songs may require multiple listens to fully penetrate.

But anyone who loves the English language should marvel at his poking into its nooks and crannies with phrases such as “ravening maw,” “colliery town,” “fumbled skein,” and “vile vaudevillians.” In Costello’s infinitely gifted hands, pop music circa 2010 is anything but “only rock ’n’ roll.”

— Randy Lewis

Elvis Costello
“National Ransom”
Hear Music
Three stars (Out of four)