Elvis Costello – National Ransom

On November 15, 2010, in Bluegrass, Country, Country Rock, Jazz, Review, Rock, Vaudeville, by Miguel Rodriguez
Artist: Elvis Costello
Album: National Ransom
Producer: T Bone Burnett
Label: Hear Music
Release: November 2, 2010

Rating: 8.7 RockRolls

When you've been in the music industry for a while, you would imagine it will be difficult to remain as fresh and relevant as when you've started. Each passing year and album brings criticism comparing an artist's direction to "the last album." But for Elvis Costello, after thirty-three studio albums in as many years, this has never really been the case. A master of nearly every popular musical genre, Costello's storied career as a musician, vocalist, and songwriter has traveresed and enchanted the musical roadmap of almost every style imaginable (we're still waiting on that rap crossover). With National Ransom Costello takes us across the breadth of his musical prowess, jumping between styles and emotion in an often dark, but always honest, concept-like album.

Part of the power of National Ransom comes from a localization for the inspiration of each track. Costello has included in the liner notes dates and locations as the setting for each song, and fitting the tune and mood appropriately into a time warp of a track list. Some of the references are fairly obvious when coupled with their subject matter, as in Stations Of The Cross (In An Undisclosed Location, Possibly New Orleans, 2005). An obvious allusion to the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, Costello croons:

The water came up to the eaves
You'd think someone had opened a valve
It's too soon to stay now and too late to leave
So spare your remorse all the way up to Calvary
Others are more subtle like Tucson, Arizona, 1978 on Five Small Words. Fully understanding the specificity of each track is a journey that is just as entertaining as the album itself. In this manner, the album almost fits as a concept album, but the songs are so varied and unfocused, it doesn't follow a concept. And despite this, the songs are all strikingly familiar and belong in this collection together.

If the album had a theme, it would be catastrophe. The album cover features a wolf in late-Victorian business garb, sprinting with a bag of flaming money in front of oil fields and the unfinished pyramid with the Eye of Providence atop it found on the back of the one dollar bill. It shouldn't take much to infer commentary about the economic crisis. but if the album cover isn't enough to get the point across, the chorus in the first track, which happens to be the title track, should clarify it for you:

They’re running wild
Just like some childish tantrum
Meanwhile we’re working every day
Paying off the National Ransom

The opening track barrages the ears with Attraction-esque country rock. And it should come as no surprise, Pete Thomas lends drumwork to the track (and to the album whenever drums might be present) and Steve Nieve rocks the Vox organ while The Sugarcanes (with whom Elvis is currently touring) round out the necessary bass (Dennis Crouch) and violin (Stuart Duncan), not to mention producer T Bone Burnett on reverse piano (but, what is an Elvis Costello album (or an Alison Krauss or an Robert Plant album) without T Bone Burnett involved somehow?). Topping it off, Marc Ribot screams out a sharp and pointed guitar solo over the track. I could go on naming artists appearing on the record, but with over 30 musicians, I could write a review with just their names. Names like Vince Gill, Leon Russell and Jerry Douglas.

Excuse me while I pick up those other names I just dropped.

Elvis jumps from the rocking "National Ransom" to the somber and acoustic, vaudevillian "Jimmie Standing In The Rain" in an instant, but not out of step. Darrell Leonard's trumpet joins Duncan's fiddle on the track, which, along with Costello's voice and Ribot's lead guitar paint a very intimate conversation among the group. The track's titular character, Jimmie, is a down-on-his-luck travelling musician, dismissed by lovers and trying in vain to peddle "a counterfeited prairie lullaby in a colliery town." A drunkard, sick and hopelessly lonely, Jimmie snaps to the realization that the only situation that matters is the one he's in currently; he's standing out in the rain. Costello's characters all seem to reach this revelation in their search for redemption. In the same style as "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," but contrasting tone is "A Slow Drag For Josephine," two-and-a-half minutes of playful fingerstyle guitar opposite Ribot's banjo with vocal harmony served up as wonderfully crafted dish by Mike Compton (who also provides mandolin on the track). But Costello wants us to know this album isn't just about pre-1930s character tunes.

Country offerings like "Five Small Words" and the honky-tonk-bound "I Lost You" are classic while the country/western ballad "That's Not The Part Of Him You're Leaving" speak directly to the heart without being cheesy or campy. It would be unfair however to classify this as a bluegrass/country/western album though, as these tracks contrast even further with the remainder of the album.

A number of headier tracks balance out the uptempo flavor of the rock and country tracks. "Stations Of The Cross" is a powerfull jazz-like ballad pounded out with pained lyrics reminding us that we are complicit in human suffering if we dismiss our knowledge of them as easily as we turn the channel on our televisions. "Church Underground" follows the tortured lifetime of a struggling actress whose tragic, but hopeful story is not far from familiar gossip rags. And the sweet lullaby melody of "You Hung The Moon" sing sadly of a family stripped of its brother or patriarch ripped from their lives by the Great War never to return. Oddly this song is placed in the middle of the album when it lends itself to close the record more than the jazz-standard-emulating, "A Voice In The Dark" with its Big Easy swing and open-endedness which begs a relisten to the album more than offering closure. Perhaps that's more Costello's intent.

National Ransom is filled with tracks that Costello lovers will be dying to hear, and that people from any walk of life can relate to. Intellectually deep, lyrically complex, musically rich, and always full of life (on its upswings, and its downs), this album offers more than just thirty-three years of craftsmanship in the making. It is a solid, honest work of art that will bring more appreciation with each listen.

8.7 RockRolls

One Response to Elvis Costello – National Ransom

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