For those who haven't noticed, stripped-down, acoustically based music has made quite a comeback of late — specifically that of the Appalachian variety. And from John Mellencamp's Life Death Love And Freedom to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Grammy-sweeping smash Raising Sand, producer T-Bone Burnett has been right there at the center of most of it.
So it's little surprise then that Elvis Costello recruited Burnett to produce his most recent attempt at what amounts to a stripped-down country record.
It's not Costello's first try at this either, nor is it his first time working with Burnett, who also produced his albums King Of America (which had many of the same elements found here) and Spike (which didn't). Costello's very first stab at making this type of album actually goes all the way back to 1981's Almost Blue, an album of covers by people like George Jones, which is mostly best left forgotten.
On Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Costello fares much better, although casual EC fans should be forewarned. This isn't My Aim Is True, Armed Forces, or Imperial Bedroom. The truth is, this is probably a lot closer to being a cross between King Of America and (fortunately, to a lesser extent) Almost Blue. And yes, there is a bit of what I would call "filler" here.
Fortunately, however, what's good here ("My All Time Doll," "Sulphur To Sugarcane") is so good that it's more than enough to erase the taste of the occasional (well okay, maybe not so occasional) artistic indulgence.
Mostly, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is a bit of an acquired taste — and will be even for some of those fans who've long since become accustomed to Costello's penchant for vanity projects. The only non-acoustic instrument even heard here is the occasional electric guitar flourish from Burnett — and those flourishes are mostly very tasty, I might add.
But for those willing to stick it out, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is for the most part a record which proves ultimately satisfying. Recorded over a three day period in — where else? — Nashville, the album was inspired in part by The Secret Songs, Costello's still to be completed work for the Royal Danish Opera about the life of Hans Christian Andersen.
Some of those songs show up here, although in arrangements far closer to the Tennessee backwoods than to any European opera house. There are also songwriting collaborations with Loretta Lynn ("I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came") and with Emmylou Harris (who sings backup on "The Crooked Line").
However, once you get past the rather obvious bluegrass and country influences, this is still ultimately an Elvis Costello record — which means that it comes down to the songs. And there are some really great ones here.
On "My All Time Doll," Costello proves he's lost none of his gift for sharp wordplay in lines like "you're my all time doll/you're all I adore/I'd swear to it now/but I already swore." Costello bites off lyrics like these with near the same playful spite as anything he's recorded with the Attractions, while the countrified backing manages to make it sound as funky as, well, as funky as mandolins and such get, I guess.
"Hidden Shame" takes on a near hoedown feel with its dobros and fiddles, as Costello turns in another killer lyric in the chorus about a "hidden shame, shame, shame" where he can't break away from "the torture and misery, must it be by secret for eternity."
Lyrically speaking anyway, Elvis is still king throughout Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
"Sulphur To Sugarcane" is the real standout here, though. Against a beat that is really more like a hillbilly shuffle set to a countrified backdrop of — yep, you guessed it — fiddles and dobros, Costello rattles off a hilarious series of lines about ravaging women in various U.S. cities. Sample lyrics include "the women in Poughkeepsie take their clothes off when they're tipsy," "Up in Syracuse, I was falsely accused, but I'm not here to hurt you, I'm here to steal your virtue," and my personal favorite, "In Worcester, Massachusetts, they just love my sauce."
When Elvis takes this show out on the road this summer, I can see that one being not only a crowd-pleaser, but depending upon the city and the venue, a sure-fire campfire sing-along song. This is just great stuff — unless of course, you happen to be one of the unfortunate women in those cities.
I guess the closest thing I could compare this to is Springsteen's Seeger Sessions record. Once you get over the initial shock of the odd arrangements — not to mention all those damn fiddles and what-not — this is a very decent Elvis Costello album that occasionally — if not quite as often as I'd like — approaches greatness.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane arrives in stores this Tuesday, June 2.