by Erick Trickey
It's impossible to love, or even keep up with, everything Elvis Costello has done lately. He's collaborated on albums with Brill Building pop songwriter Burt Bacharach and opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter. He's followed up When I Was Cruel, a rock return to form, with North, an album of quiet love songs. Last September he released both the country-and-blues-influenced album The Delivery Man and his Shakespeare-inspired classical composition Il Sogno. And to top it all off, the lucky bastard married jazz singer Diana Krall and cowrote half of her last album.
So what to make of the news that Costello plays the Michigan Theater Tuesday, April 19? Fortunately, initial reviews from his tour report that he's thoughtfully mixing classics from his early glory years of rage with The Delivery Man's fuzzy, propulsive postblues and tear-stained alternative-country.
Costello has always loved country music. Two outtakes from his first album in 1977 were country originals. He announced his love with Almost Blue (1981), an album of country covers not to be confused with "Almost Blue" (1982), his ultimate torch song of despair. Now there's an entire genre, alt-country, built on similar hybrids of country and rock, and Costello is enlisting himself in its ranks. The Delivery Man, recorded in Mississippi and released on the alt-country imprint Lost Highway, includes plenty of forlorn ballads and cameos by alt-country icons and perennial duet partners Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. "Heart-Shaped Bruise," one of the three duets with Harris, sounds like a sequel to "Hearts on Fire," her 1973 recording with alt-country forefather Gram Parsons, a Costello idol.
The Delivery Man started as a concept album about a deliveryman with a dark secret and the women he fascinates and disappoints. Then Costello shattered it and rearranged the shards. But you won't need to understand the enigmatic character sketches to enjoy them live. The album's music is more complete than its lyrics, with surprising thrills: a sudden falsetto; a break
in the chorus leaving only two voices, bass-drum kicks, and cymbal crashes; buzzing, shouting blues riffs; cacophonies that sound like recent Tom Waits albums; and a fun roadhouse rocker, "There's a Story in Your Voice" (the Lucinda Williams duet).
In concert, expect a two-hour set that matches the new bluesy numbers with angry favorites such as "Oliver's Army" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea." The 1980s ballad "Shipbuilding," set in a port town that can prosper only by making warships, will find an echo in "Scarlet Tide," an antiwar Harris duet with a Celtic/Appalachian feel. Connections between the new and old country songs will be even more exciting. Costello is singing Almost Blue's "Good Year for the Roses" on this tour, a cover that sounds just like his own writing, especially when the singer compares himself to the lipstick-printed cigarette butts in his soon-to-be-ex-lover's ashtray. Costello and country meet in details like that: shabby yet full of aching melodrama.
[Originally published in April, 2005.]