on 10 January 2008
Who cares if the idea of a retreat into "alt-country" seems like something of a cynical attempt to cash in on the success of retro-rockers like Ryan Adams, Bonnie Prince Billy, Lambchop and The White Stripes...? this is Costello delivering the goods, with a blistering semi-concept album about the murderous intent of a lustful delivery man and the women that fall under his spell. Of course, the central motif of the album goes beyond mere seduction and greed, as Costello also incorporates a fair amount of his trademark angst and bile, as he lays into current political problems post 9/11, the judicial system, social malaise and wanton heartbreak. The results are quite astounding, with Costello seemingly re-invigorated after the classical-jazz experiments found on 2003's underrated release North and last year's instrumental work, Ill Sogno, with the rock star finally looking back to the style of music that made him famous... creating a work of raw emotional resonance replete with muddy pub-rock production, noisy guitars and an over-all genius band performance from the Impostors.
As with his best work, like This Year's Model, Imperial Bedroom and Trust, you get a real sense that Costello and the band are having a great deal of fun creating this music and using the production to develop an atmosphere that complements - as opposed to overwhelming - the intent of the songs. It is true that some will find this wilful, haphazard approach to the recording a little off-putting, though I think others will appreciate the country feel that we get from these songs, as well as the welcome change of pace following the over-production and purposeful stylisation of many of Costello's more-recent records of the last decade. Also, I think it could be said the use of production here helps to draw the listener's attention back to the arrangement of the instrumentation and towards Costello's always great lyrical wit, especially given that a more robust or crystal-clear approach to the overall mastering of the sound would have drawn out the limitations and obvious pretensions of Costello's melodramatic concept.
Here, it is the music that really takes centre stage, with the whole record benefiting from the live and loose approach to recording, which really brings out the emotive subtleties in Costello's gruff vocals (he even reaches an almost falsetto on a couple of the tracks!), whilst the band (which here comprises of former attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas as well as bassist Davey Faragher and backing vocals from Lucinda Williams and the legendary Emmylou Harris) manage to take the songs to places that EC alone could never achieve. For me, it is the inclusion of Nieve and Harris that really makes The Delivery Man come to life, with Nieve laying down melodic and haunting organ/piano passages that break through the aggression of Costello's distorted, bluesy guitar, whilst Harris swoops in like an angle and complements those ear-splitting Elvis vocals in a way that brings to mind those great records she made with Gram Parsons. The album certainly invokes a certain time and place, both through the use of instrumentation and through production, but also, through Costello's lyrics. However, as noted above, the album has a much more contemporary and socially aware underlining, which seems to deviate from mere notions of farmhouses and country roads, and definitely shows Costello to be light years ahead of his bloated contemporaries and those youthful country-grave-robbers listed at the start of this review.
The very first verse of the record, "don't wanna talk about the government, don't wanna talk about some incident, don't wanna talk about no peppermint gum, don't wanna talk about the time to come..." seems to be lashing out against the current trend of mindless pop stars talking politics as a way of gaining kudos from the press (and let's not forget, Costello has always been political... What's So Funny 'Bout..., Oliver's Army, Shipbuilding and Tramp the Dirt Down, et al), before he too lashes out against the foibles of the world in a way that seems to be lambasting his younger self... "button my lip, till I'm old enough, button my lip, till I'm smart enough". Both Bedlam and first single Monkey to Man continue this theme, with the former acting as a Costello style country rap (not a million miles away from Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues by way of something from his own album, When I Was Cruel) filled with evocative and confrontational imagery, whilst the latter has a bouncing country/surf melody that hides the sinister refrain "it's been heading this way since the word began, since one vicious creature took the jump... from monkey to man". However, the creative high of all this political and social reflection comes with the later track, She's Pulling Out the Pin, which has already been pulled from the US version (apparently) for it's juxtaposition of eroticised imagery that masks the truer, darker intent of the song.
The rest of the tracks seem to deal more explicitly with themes central to the concept, with stories of love, lust and heartbreak being expressed in Costello's typically brash and bitter style. Country Darkness could have come from Van Morrison's early 70s Tupelo Honey/His Band and the Street Choir period whilst There's a Story in Your Voice is a raucous duet with the ballsy Ms. Williams, which juxtaposes nicely with the later duets with Emmylou; particularly, Either Side of the Same Town, Heart Shaped Bruise and that song from Cold Mountain - The Scarlet Tide. Other highlights for me were the wilting Nothing Clings Like Ivy and the bitter The Name of This Thing is Not Love, which could have easily come from King of America or Blood & Chocolate, whilst The Judgement, which features one of Costello's most impassioned performances ("and he falls to his knees, 'have mercy on me', and he clings to the hem of her gown") is easily (like many of the songs here) one of the best things he's ever recorded.