Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
Record Label: Hear Music Records
Release Date: June 2nd, 2009
Looking back at pictures of Elvis Costello when he was in his mid-twenties, and listening to the music he wrote as a solo artist, it’s easy to see where modern alternative rock bands may have gotten their influence. Long before Fall Out Boy was writing music about dancing and arms races, decades before Billie Joe Armstrong was an American Idiot and years before Rivers Cuomo threw on a pair of black rimmed glasses and claimed he looked like Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello was busy penning the most important record of his life: his debut album My Aim Is True. With songs like “Welcome to the Working Week,” “Alison,” and “Less Than Zero,” Costello proved that he could write rock and pop music that was worth the hype. Thirty years later, he’s played under dozens of different names (whether it’s Elvis Costello and the Imposters, or Elvis Costello and the Attractions), released more than thirty CDs and has continued to influence musicians to this day. It’s interesting that more than thirty years after his career as a musician began, he releases one of his more experimental and daring CD’s with Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
Elvis Costello has never shied away from playing different genres. His first two CD’s, My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model had a more fast paced rock feel to it, while his later CDs touched on everything from country (Almost Blue) to soul (Get Happy!). Even now, modern bands like Fall Out Boy and Green Day have worked with him and his music continues to be relevant to every style of music. With his 36th release (just saying 36 out loud is enough to make your head spin), Secret, Profane & Sugarcane shows him at his most country, writing songs that tell stories within the lyrics and remind you of the kind of music that may have been made in the '50s. The guitar is always mellow, the violins soar over Costello’s gruff voice and as a result, he delivers a solid performance, albeit one whose songs sound a little too similar and grow stale after a short while.
Now, I’m not normally a fan of country music. In fact, just hearing a song by Keith Urban or Toby Keith while walking around a mall or a department store is enough to make me want to sit down in the middle of the aisle, pull the shoelaces off of my shoes and strangle myself. However, Elvis Costello adopts a more classical feel to the music. His wordplay and lyrical prowess is still evident; it’s just being sung to the beat of a different drum (or to the strumming of a different guitar, if you will).
The CD starts off with the one-two punch of “Down Among the Wine and Spirits” and “Complicated Shadows.” The former is a slow paced song with a strong country vibe while the latter sounds like something Johnny Cash may have sung (the song was actually written for him before he died, but he never got a chance to record it). These two songs prove Costello’s ability to fight his way through any genre. Both songs, especially “Complicated Shadows,” are almost bluesy in their delivery, yet never rise above slow paced. These two songs are followed by “I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came,” one of the best on the CD. It plays as a mix between Bob Dylan and Loretta Lynn, who coincidentally helped Costello co-write the song.
The CD bounces along like this for awhile, intertwining some more upbeat tracks (“My All Time Doll”) with some that crawl along as if it were being dragged through the dirt by a sloth (“She Handed Me A Mirror”). It’s not until late in the CD, with “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” that the CD regains its energy and wakes you up. Emmylou Harris sings with Costello on this song, and the result is the best song on the CD. It's six minutes long, and every second is used to showcase Costello’s songwriting skills.
Unfortunately, after “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” the CD drifts back into a sub-par, slow moving country record. There’s nothing like the same violin melody over and over to make you go insane. Maybe if “The Crooked Line” was the opening track to the CD, I would be interested in how Costello is able to make country sound, dare I say it, cool. However, even Costello can’t save the record from nearly toppling into mediocrity. The problem is that, for whatever reason, Costello and company find it difficult to stray very far from the same rhythm and melody every song. With the exception of the opening track, “Complicated Shadows” and “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” the CD is mostly repetitive and reuses the same progressions.
Luckily, Costello is a good enough musician to trudge through even the toughest parts of the CD. It’s just disappointing not to see a little more variety in the songwriting. I’m a sucker for anything acoustic, but Costello simply falls back on the twangy guitar and violins one too many times.
I've known for awhile now that Costello isn’t going to release another My Aim Is True or This Year’s Model. He’s built his career on constantly reinventing the wheel and never making the same CD twice. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is a solid CD from a great artist, and one can only hope that he’ll switch it up for his next CD instead of trading in his guitar for a violin, some tambourines and Toby Keith-esque lyrics.