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Music Review: Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

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A lot of water has flowed under the musical bridge for Elvis Costello in the last thirty plus years. He has transitioned from angry young punk/new wave rocker to soul to country. His extensive soundtrack work since the early nineties has also attracted a new generation of fans. His interpretation of the old Charles Aznavour song, “She,” from the movie Notting Hill as well as his Academy Award nominated “Scarlet Tide” from the film Cold Mountain showed his softer side

His latest release, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, finds him in excellent form. It is also a thinking person’s album.  As his talent as a lyricist has evolved, there is now a  denseness to his lyrics that leave the stories he tells open to interpretation. As such, they bear repeated listening as the meanings are sometimes elusive and open to change.

If you hope to find a rock ‘n’ roll Costello here you will be disappointed. A lot of the music falls squarely into the country category. Many of the tracks feature a dobro, mandolin, and fiddle to support Costello’s acoustic guitar playing. The constant absence of drums pushes the sound in a bluegrass direction on many of the tracks.

There are two wonderful ballads contained on this album. “I Felt The Chill” is a country ballad at its best. A mournful fiddle supports the sad story of love’s failings. “I Dreamed Of My Old Lover” deals with the eternal topic of love’s secrets.  

On the other side of the coin, “She Handed Me A Mirror” is just some old-time, foot-stomping music yet the lyrics are complex and create two listening experiences at the same time. “Sulphur To Sugarcane” is an interesting fusion of country and blues.

The songs that I have returned to a number of times are “How Deep Is The Red?” and “Red Cotton.” Both songs have some bite to them. I’m not sure if the first is an anti-war song or an anti-love song, but it certainly is fascinating. The second is a song of judgment and ultimately damnation that is hidden in a story of the slave trade.

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is not background music because it requires and in many ways demands your full attention. It presents Elvis Costello at his best and that is very good indeed.

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