The Delivery Man, just another outstanding Elvis Costello album

Posted by Al Barger on September 30, 2004

I typically find it difficult to review a brand new Elvis Costello album. They tend to take a minute to digest, as do most great albums. Typically, a first listen to an Elvis album yields a few basic hooks, and some basic impression. It takes a while, however, for some of the nuance to reveal itself.

After a mere half dozen listens, then, I offer what I emphasize is a preliminary report on The Delivery Man, released a mere week ago. Generally, I'd rate this perhaps slightly disappointing, by Elvis standards. That is, this album is merely an outstanding modern pop album, but probably not quite a Sgt Pepper or Imperial Bedroom.

I'd put this album quality wise about the middle of Elvis' catalog. This certainly surpasses his few duds, but it's not going to make anyone forget Imperial Bedroom. It would probably slide in somewhere above Blood and Chocolate and below When I Was Cruel.

About half the album could reasonably be called "country" music. Indeed, these are some of his most nearly straightforward country genre compositions ever, with a minimum of idiosyncratic Elvis weirdness. Of course, a quarter century of living on Elvis Costello albums has naturally caused me to develop a taste for exactly idiosyncratic Elvis weirdness.

Anyway, two of the best song compositions on the album are in the country songs. "Name of This Thing Is Not Love" has a strong country waltz with a narrator having a moment of guilty clarity.

There's nothing cutesy or clever or overtly wordsmithy about this, but a real direct dramatic clarity. Perhaps sometimes Elvis will lapse into intermittently clever but sometimes disjointed and not really adding up. The simpler parameters of country songform such as here bring out his most direct and emotionally real performances.

To put it differently, Elvis gets Hank Williams. I could hear this song being drug into jazz or folk mediums. Tracy Chapman could probably do something real interesting.

Probably the closest thing to Elvis' country style here would be Steve Earle, only a hell of a lot better than most Steve Earle. Lucinda Williams was certainly like a hot female doppleganger for Steve with her performance on "There's a Story in Your Voice."

This song nominally is a sad country song about a restless lover. It's a fine little song. It made me think of Gram Parsons, though I can't say just why.

Lucinda Williams really makes this song, though. She really managed to inject an aura of great charisma. She comes off like the ultimate gin soaked barroom queen from Memphis. Her pure drunken enthusiasm tickles me more and more with each listen, right down to her final exclamation.

The best of the rock songs count amongst the most compelling grooves of his recorded career. How much of this comes from the long lasting pleasures of strong melody versus the relatively cheap thrills of simple rhythms remains a question before the court.

One way or another, "Button My Lip" kicks my ass. The guitar runs such raw yet smooth rhythms as to be insidiously compelling already. Yet this rawness still comes out like chamber music, in the Walter Rimler usage.

That is, it's a carefully arranged orchestral piece, in which each instrument has a uniquely developed and important voice. This comes from making his album with the Imposters, aka the Attractions with a new bass player who would just about make you forget the old one. This album certainly gains from the strong overall feeling of a working band involved.

There's nobody just playing scales here, least of all the diabolical Steve Nieve. He just gets better with time. The discordant yet somehow perfectly beautiful chords he's pounding out make the completing part of the "Button My Lip" song.

"Bedlam" also features a really compelling stew of classic stuttering raw rock groovliciousness. The underlying vocal melody seems pretty good, though perhaps less than the very best of his career. He sure makes the most of it, though, again with every single instrument really adding something compelling to the whole statement. It's a pretty impressive sonic experience.

Elvis played "Monkey to Man" a few nights ago on Letterman, causing Dave to explain that Elvis was "single handedly saving rock and roll." Gee, I don't know if it rates quite THAT high, but it is pretty good.

This song is something of a vicious evil twin of the Kinks' classic "Apeman." Elvis gives us a communique from the apes, delivering one of his most classic misanthropic rants in a deliriously happy rockin' pop song:

Big and useless as he has become
With his crying statues and his flying bomb
Goes ‘round acting like the chosen one
Excuse us if we treat him like our idiot cousin...
It’s been headed this way since the world began
When a vicious creature took the jump from Monkey to Man

Then there's the title song. "The Delivery Man" sounds like it might have fit somewhere in the middle of King of America. That's a good thing. Again, it's a pretty good, slow ominously swinging song, but he's really made a heller record out of the pretty good basic composition. The arrangement is at least as compelling as the song.

That's definitely at least a half dozen outstanding songs right there, but even most of the others have some things going on. I could well imagine "Either Side of the Same Town" or the viciously compelling "Needle Time" emerging as favorites a month or two out.

Yeah, this album will be yielding it's charms more fully with time.


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