Album Review: Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

[Hear Music; 2009]

Elvis Costello is nothing if not dependable. His prolificacy is matched only by the uniformly high quality of his studio releases. For an artist who has been recording for over 30 years, the consistency of Costello’s output is nearly unrivaled. One of Costello’s secrets to maintaining this high level of work is his ability to churn out a record with a minimum of studio fiddling. Supposedly, it took him only three days to cut this Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.

In a departure from his more rock-oriented recent output, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is clearly a country record. The Imposters, Costello’s backing band from many of his recent releases, have been replaced with an acoustic country string band complete with Dobro, fiddle, mandolin, accordion and banjo.

Though it’s been some time since his last true country album, 1981’s Almost Blue, this isn’t new ground. For those new to his work: Costello is an unapologetic genre-hopper. Though his first few albums didn’t sound much like anything that had come before, records like Get Happy!! and King of America blatantly paid tribute to specific pop music traditions – soul on the former and folk on the latter. Despite his Liverpool roots, Costello has always borne a deep fascination with the pop music of America.

So, the country flavor of this new record shouldn’t come as a surprise; on Almost Blue and King of America, Costello was doing this long before Old Crow Medicine Show came along. The tracks on Secret, Profane and Sugarcane cover a range of styles within the overarching genre, from country blues to folk, heartbroken ballads to chugging shuffles.

Costello’s timeworn voice has little trouble settling into the country groove. He lacks the genre’s customary American Southern accent, but the laid-back arrangements are masterfully handled by Costello’s band. The sound is more open and organic than it was on Momofuku. Fiddle licks blend with accordion and acoustic guitar on “The Crooked Line,” while mandolin subtly dances beneath the verses of “I Dreamed of My Old Lover.”

“My All Time Doll,” a minor-key lament, evokes the somber feel of The Beatles’ “Girl,” while the upbeat and bawdy “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is built on constant location-referencing that evokes Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

Unfortunately, the middle of the album drags and runs together. The hooks aren’t strong enough to help distinguish one mid-tempo country strummer from another. Every song is solid, but it’s reasonably easy to understand why a forgettable tune like “She Handed Me a Mirror” might have been passed over on a previous album.

Costello closes with a slow cover of Bing Crosby’s “Changing Partners,” a fitting finish that sees Secret, Profane and Sugarcane riding slowly off into the night. Even if the country shtick seems a little too grating, the album doesn’t break Costello’s string of solid work.