Ever since announcing several years ago that he was going to stop releasing new music, Elvis Costello has been on a bit of tear. Hot on the heels of 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, comes this year’s model, National Ransom. Recorded with many of the same musicians, the records also share many stylistic similarities. The songs are primarily acoustic, with a strong country/bluegrass/Americana vibe. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t occasionally kick up some dust – the title track bumps and grinds along with a nicely tortured guitar solo by on-and-off collaborator, Marc Ribot. But for the most part, Elvis sounds comfortably settled into these shuffling tempos and jazzy chordings.
Perhaps comfortable is the operative word here. At the age of 56, Elvis has seemingly settled into that “mature” period of his career – the tempos have slowed down, the hooks are less immediate, and the anger is now tempered with resignation. He puts out his records with little fanfare and zero effort to appease any sort of “youth” market. He plays festivals all over the world, does his TV show, and is always, it seems, writing, writing new songs.
Perhaps an editor could be in order. At 16 songs and over 62 minutes, National Ransom would be better served pruned down to a more manageable length. Some of its smaller pleasures (like the jaunty “A Slow Drag with Josephine” and the rollicking throwaway “The Spell That You Cast”) tend to get lost amidst the album’s more portentous numbers. And Elvis can still wring his hands with the best of them as he does on the title track, as well as “Bullets for the New-Born King,” which announces its significance with its simple, winding melody, and avalanche of words. Forgive me if I prefer him when he doesn’t show his work so obviously. I prefer my rock’n’roll a little more off the cuff. There are moments of casual brilliance sprinkled throughout, but overall it would be better served with a little more levity dropped into the mix. (Hear Music/Universal)