Politics & Policy

Failing to Deliver

Costello gets the genre and lyrics wrong in The Delivery Man.

Relying solely on The Delivery Man’s advance press and its artwork (which features Elvis Costello in silver cowboy boots leaning against a 30-year-old Chevy pickup with a Dale Earnhardt Jr. sticker in the back window), one would think it the Brit singer-songwriter’s attempt at an original country album and a belated follow-up to 1981’s Almost Blue–an earnest-yet-strained set of country covers, which happened to be the first less-than-stellar effort of Costello’s recording career.

Costello has hinted in interviews that Delivery was indeed intended to be a country- or Americana-tinged narrative of a fictional protagonist’s romantic adventures with three different women somewhere in the American South, but only a little of that concept seems to have remained in either the content or the sound of the final product.

Instead, Delivery is Costello’s most musically satisfying rock outing in years, with a vibe not unlike the one he achieved while backed by the Attractions on string of magnificent albums (interrupted only by Almost Blue)–from This Year’s Model (1978) to Imperial Bedroom (1982). The Imposters–pianist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas (both ex-Attractions), and ex-Cracker bassist Davey Faragher–execute Costello’s taut, nuanced arrangements with a mix of grandeur and punch.

Raucous workouts like “Bedlam,” “Needle Time,” and “The Name of Thing is Not Love” sound as good as the best Attractions-era material, but they fall short lyrically, lacking the precise craftsmanship and Dylanesque (or Nabokovian, if you like) wordplay of the Attractions era.

In the otherwise gorgeous “Country Darkness” a woman daydreams of “forbidden sins,” a redundancy that would have served some purpose for the young Elvis, but that in this case just lies in the middle of a muddled mess–one that could be called impressionistic if it left any impression other than that Costello can sing a mediocre ballad really well.

And the title track’s banality has to be heard to be believed. One only hopes Costello doesn’t think he’s the first to point out that both Jesus and Elvis (the one from Tupelo, not the one from Liverpool) are Southern cultural icons.

Maddeningly, the best lyrics on Delivery are the ones Costello first wrote for others to sing: “There’s a Story in Your Voice,” performed here as a duet with the wonderfully dissolute Lucinda Williams; “The Judgement,” written for Solomon Burke’s exquisite Don’t Give Up on Me; and “The Scarlet Tide,” co-written with T Bone Burnett for Alison Krauss and the Cold Mountain soundtrack.

Delivery suffers in comparison to the innovative efforts it consciously recalls, but it’s still a good album. Just not as good as it sounds.

Aaron Keith Harris writes for Country Music Today and Bluegrass Unlimited.

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