Elvis Costello and the Imposters
The Delivery Man
t would be easy to get lost in the backstory of Elvis Costello's new album The Delivery Man. The biographical arc always comes up with Costello—the journey from young punk to baroque orchestrator to Bacharach sidekick, with stops everywhere in between. His large discography starts with three brilliant albums and has its ups and downs from there. This particular album, started nearly 20 years ago with a song Costello wrote for Johnny Cash, developed into a concept with a complete narrative arc. Over time, the concept was dropped, in favor of a set of songs unified only in sound.
Despite his forays into a variety of sounds, Costello has only infrequently visited the southern Americana style found here. The instrumentation, including pedal steel guitar and melodica, contributes to the tone, but the songwriting and delivery (including guest vocals by Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris) secure the country flavor. At its best, "Button My Lip" for instance, Costello and the Imposters (Steve Nieve, Davey Faragher, Pete Thomas, and John McPhee) bring their high energy to aggressive swamp boogies and rootsy rockers, but on the album's lows, he settles for inert songs that hang on generic devices rather than innovation. Fortunately, the good songs outnumber the bad; unfortunately, the veteran Costello has made the rookie mistaking of frontloading the disc.
To praise the uptempo songs and deplore the more balladic numbers would be to fall into the critical trap that admirers of This Year's Model have been stuck in for 20 years. Just the same, the idea that Costello's at his best when he rocks out holds true on The Delivery Man. A few exceptions do stand out. The title track, for example, works well, with its stripped-down arrangement matching its characterization of the desired and erotic delivery man, half-Elvis, half-Jesus, all ecstasy. The ukulele-driven piece, "The Scarlet Tide" features a subdued closing with strong vocals from Emmylou Harris, which despite the Hawaiian instrumentation connects to the folk music created in the early half of the 20th century. The other slow numbers, by and large, just grind down the momentum of the disc, especially in the second half.
Merely turning up the juice, however, doesn't guarantee a stellar track. "Needle Time", which actually contains a few tempo changes, ranges from smart avant-country to dull noise-influenced rock. While the track doesn't quite succeed musically, it does contain some fine lyrical moments, especially in the first verse: "I wish that I didn't hate you / Least not as much as I do ... Liar like you are ten-a-penny / Women would slap you, if you knew any." It's hard not to be reminded of the early Costello's venom, but the lyrics don't work as throwback to his old attitude; instead, they work as a great spit of spite that reflects thematically on the rest of the album even as they’re deeply focused on the particulars of this one song.
The Delivery Man contains some pretty obvious stumbles, but it doesn't lack strong tracks either. Costello and the Imposters make this album work as a study in genre and tradition, but they do so on their own terms. Rather than paying meek tribute to Americana's history, they integrate their own vision with the style. It doesn't always work, but it does so often enough to make the album an entertaining listen.