Elvis Costello - National Ransom
Record Label: Hear Music/Universal Records
Release Date: November 2, 2010
National Ransom is Elvis Costello’s latter-day masterpiece. Woven within the album’s sixty-two minutes and sixteen tracks are the influences and products from virtually every era of Costello’s enormously diverse career. The album encompasses his entire musical journey: the punk-rock energy of his beginnings in the 1970’s as a smart and angry young man tearing through the UK taking whatever musical element he wanted, practical evidence of an ongoing obsession with American country music, countless pseudonyms, various “return to form” rock albums throughout the last few decades, and an encyclopedic familiarity with all music and its practitioners.
Lyrically, on National Ransom Costello traverses familiar emotional terrain, with large helpings of guilt, longing, cynicism, and trademark biting humor and rage. The title track is a blistering attack on Wall Street corruption and greed, and songs like “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” and “Stations of the Cross” are touching character studies that depict a world rife with loss, regret and wasted opportunity. “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving”—sharing personal top billing with “National Ransom” as my favorite song on the album—is a wonderful, musically and lyrically melodramatic, steel-pedal drenched take on jealous love. Country-styled ballads such as “You Hung the Moon” and “All These Strangers” explore the ravages of war (though from a lyrical perspective that borrows more from WWI than Iraq, but Costello has always been a classicist at heart). “A Slow Drag with Josephine” is a delightful, garrulous, 20’s-styled shuffle; this and closer “A Voice in the Dark” feel like relics from a long distant, but still relevant past. In this sense, it’s a timeless album, although one gets the sense that it couldn’t have emerged from any other time and place.
And it is unexpected flourishes—the way a sharp drumbeat mingles so effectively with the strummed guitar and country piano on “That’s Not the Part…,” the bassoon accents and slightly wet (for lack of a better word) vocal delivery of “One Bell Ringing,” the brass section climax in “A Church Underground,” the whistling at the end of “A Slow Drag…,” the scat-singing in the intro of “A Voice in the Dark,” the very way Costello chooses to pronounce “baboon”—that make the album such a satisfying and rewarding listening experience. Guitar twang is perfectly applied throughout. It’s the perfect mixture of flavors.
The personnel, too, serves as an example of how Costello has come to synthesize all the elements of his musical past. His latest band, the Imposters, are responsible for the ragged, energetic, rock feel of much of his recent material—2004’s The Delivery Man and 2008’s Momofuku being the two best examples—and include two of the three members of Costello’s original band, the Attractions (virtuoso of “anything with keys” Steve Nieve and eternally-steady drummer Pete Thomas), responsible for the fast, punk attack of Costello’s early releases. The Imposters are counterbalanced by the more delicate approach of the Sugarcanes, the acoustic outfit that backed Costello on his last album.
All is remarkably governed over by producer T-Bone Burnett, in his fourth collaboration with Costello; the first was the Americana/roots rock approach on 1986’s King of America (my personal favorite album, of any artist, period; “Bullets for the New-Born King,” found on National Ransom, would be well at home on King of America), followed by Spike in 1989, and repeated twenty years later—in my opinion, much less effectively—for the all-acoustic Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, a perfectly decent album that now seems merely like a warm-up for the eclectic showmanship demonstrated on National Ransom.
In short, National Ransom is a rich, diverse, consistently surprising and satisfying album, a tapestry of Costello’s interests and inspirations, in my opinion certainly the best Elvis Costello album of the past decade, possibly since King of America. It shows that Costello, at 56, after well over thirty years of making music, is still at the head of his game, still musically curious, ever prolific, and quite appreciably bitter. And one can hardly ask for more than that.