Are Elvis Costello fans thrilled by his predilection for genre-jumping? Or do they find it maddening? To be certain, no one listening to My Aim Is True in the late ‘70s could have predicted that the dweebish punk heard on that record would routinely take time out from rock ‘n’ roll to compose classical music, take a stab at jazz, or completely immerse himself in old-school country music as he does on his latest release, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Sure, familiarity breeds contempt, but it can also be a challenge for the folks who would prefer to hear Elvis’ distinctive voice alongside rock guitars and hard-hitting drums instead of fiddles and a lovely mandolin.
Recorded live in a Nashville studio with vintage gear, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane exudes warmth and confidence. Costello is in fine voice (assisted by Jim Lauderdale in close harmony) and the songs are much stronger than you would expect for an part-time participant in the Americana milieu. Highlights include guest vocals by Emmylou Harris and a sharp cover of “Changing Partners,” a hit for Patti Page in the ‘50s.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is produced by T-Bone Burnett, who first collaborated with Costello twenty-three years ago on the similarly rootsy King Of America. Burnett has become a hot commodity in recent years: he won Grammy awards for producing both Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? He also coached Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in their musical performances in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. If you have heard any of those projects, you may have a broad sense of what lies before you on this record. While it never quite catches fire, it’s pretty darn cool.