Steel Cage Match: Elvis 2003 VS Elvis 2004 [Part 2]

Elvis Costello L-R: 2003 – intense artiste, 2004 – garish entertainer

[…continued from previous post]

Lost Highway | US | CD | 2004 | B0002593-02

Elvis Costello + The Imposters: The Delivery Man US CD [2004]

  1. Button My Lip
  2. Country Darkness
  3. There’s A Story In Your Voice
  4. Either Side Of The Same Town
  5. The Delivery Man
  6. Monkey To Man
  7. Nothing Clings Like Ivy
  8. The Name Of This Thing Is Not Love
  9. Heart Shaped Bruise
  10. Pedal Steel Guitar – John McPhee
  11. Needle Time
  12. The Judgement
  13. The Scarlet Tide

What a difference a year makes! After slogging through “North,” I next moved to “The Delivery Man” and the difference was profound. “Button My Lip” was one of the three talking blues numbers on the album that allowed EC to indulge in his penchant for densely packed wordplay that filled these songs to bursting. The athletic bass line rondo from Davey Farragher that anchors the song sets the tone here. The rhythm was back into Costello’s work with a vengeance. This played like a more chaotic, and jazzy stab at the sort of song that “Tokyo Storm Warning” had been on “Blood + Chocolate.” I say jazzy because Steve Nieve found a puckish way to interject the hook from Bernstein/Sondheim’s “America” into the rough and tumble proceedings. When Elvis blasts off into dub space at the climax of the rambling number, by that time Nieve was exploring what I’ll call “Garson-space.” The song had a cold ending with a jack being pulled out of an amp; one couldn’t imagine it ending any other way.

After that thrilling number, the second of three faces on the album manifests itself. “Country Darkness” was a great country weeper in waltz-time featuring the same pedal steel player who officiated on the Costello debut way back in 1977; John McPhee. Here was a beguiling country number that completely decimated the taxidermied performances that filled the turgid “Almost Blue” from 1981. This was Elvis meeting country music head on as a partner; not a fawning supplicant.

The next song has been one of the many from this album that have gotten stuck in my cranium for long hours at a time; often from the point of waking. “There’s A Story In Your Voice” is a rollicking honky tonk duet with Lucinda Williams, and to be sure, Elvis sings the first verse and chorus, but when the song plays in my head, I can only hear Ms. Williams for hours on end! I was not familiar with Ms. Williams, but if Keith Richards had been a woman and had for once, fully given himself over to country music, the outcome could be exactly like this; sloppy, ragged, raw…and memorable. It’s what used to be called a real sh_t-kicker, back when country music didn’t sound like Bon Jovi. It’s so good, I want to look into this Lucinda Williams! Truth be told, I think of this as her song that EC duets with her on. After all, Elvis did let her have the last word in the song with her ragged rebel yell.

The third face of the album revealed itself with the pop balladry of “Either Side Of The Same Town;” a song that would have sat nicely on “Imperial Bedroom.” Then came another talking blues stomper. “Bedlam” belied its title and actually tightened up the reins [a bit] from the loose grip that “Button My Lip” held that song to. This one was was filled to overflowing with vibrant wordplay of the “prime Costello” variety.

“They’ve got this scared and decorated girl
strapped to the steel trunk of a mustang
And then they drove her down a cypress grove
where traitors hang and stars still spangle
They dangled flags and other rags along a
coloured thread of twine
And then they dragged that bruised and purple
heart along the road to Palestine” – “Bedlam”

Pete Thomas’ skittering drums propelled this one like a can being kicked down the street. It’s important to note that while Steve Nieve’s keyboard prowess is capable of melodically driving the S.S. Costello when needed, much of his input on this album, like here on “Bedlam,” was relegated to squirts of theremin that rose above the drone of his melodica.

The title track was another languid ballad that captured the fates of all four characters who drove seven of the songs on this album, and gave it a name. It bears mentioning, that the story of Vivien, Geraldine, Ivy, and Abel; the titular delivery man who figures in their story. Or, almost story. Fortunately, Costello used the plotline, such as it was, as a framework to attain a vibe for the songs and he placed them in the album flow, in a non-linear fashion. Which suited me just fine, since the pacing of the album is enhanced considerably by not grouping the seven songs of the plot” together. That said, the title track is a earworm of a tune. Many’s the day where I woke up with this smoky slow burner coursing through my brain. Here, Nieve took charge more than usual for the album with his organ chords.

The other [promo] single from this album was the upbeat shuffle “Monkey To Man;” an answer song to Dave Bartholomew’s 1957 R+B hit “The Monkey [Speaks His Mind].” The rare exuberant Costello dance number actually was less bitingly cynical than the nearly 50 year old number that inspired it, if you can believe that! Following this injection of pep, the pace slows considerably for “Nothing Clings Like Ivy;” one of three songs wherein Emmylou Harris sings backing vocals. While she’s far from my favorite female country singer [she hits dangerously close to Stevie Nicks territory for my taste] she does not sink this ship. The songs are too successful for that to happen. She actually duets with Costello on the [brilliant] country weeper “Heart Shaped Bruise,” which plays like the best country music classic you’ve not previously heard. That song is just waiting to become a country standard, and McPhee’s pedal steel expertly takes it home.

The jaunty “Needle Time” is a boisterous number and the third talking blues-influenced tune of the program. The lyrics were scathingly acidic, even for Costello; yet the carnival bounce of it all brilliantly played against the thrust of the lyric.

“I wish that I didn’t hate you
Least not as much as I do
And squander all my contempt for
A little nothing like you
Liars like you are ten-a-penny
Women would slap you, if you knew any” – “Needle Time”

The coup-de-grace for this number was the abrupt tempo shift from a ridiculously perky in its versus to a funereal blues vamp at quarter speed for the chorus, which consisted solely of the phrase “it’s needle time” repeated twice before re-joining the frisky verses anew. I especially loved the subterranean howls of chaos that bubbled to the top of the chorus like air bubbles escaping from a diving submarine vessel.

“Needle Time” segues via a sound effects bridge where church bells are pealing and a congregation gathers; setting the stage for “The Judgement,” the emotional peak of the album. While written in 2002 with ex-wife Cait O’Riordan for Solomon Burke’s “Don’t Give up On Me” album, the tune was a Costello stunner. All the stops were pulled out as Steve Nieve finally got to lead the melodrama of the song with his dependably grandiloquent piano, which had been under wraps the entire album. This was so powerful a song in Costello’s hands, I really want to hear the Burke version now. After that closing flourish; straight from “Imperial Bedroom,” then came the dénouement. “The Scarlet Tide” was another duet with Emmylou Harris, with Costello only providing accompaniment on ukelele.

Maybe it was simply the act of following “North” that made my ears perk up and soak this one up in a markedly different fashion to the single perfunctory listening that I gave this nearly four years ago upon purchase, but I think it’s safe to say that this is another of those late-in-the-game revelations that occasionally occur in my listening. This is an album that, under proper listening conditions, became a wildly compelling success. Not unlike “A Kiss In The Dreamhouse” or “Lodger.” Two other albums I failed to connect with for years until a corner was obviously turned.

“The Delivery Man” really plays out like a delightful cocktail made by mixing aspects of “Almost Blue,” “Imperial Bedroom” and “Blood + Chocolate” into a blender and hitting “purée.” It is almost a country music album, yet one far from the bloodless exercise that “Almost Blue” was. The country songs here were connected to the artist and validated by his participation in their creation. It made all of the difference in the world. It also has the often restrained elegance of “Imperial Bedroom” as applied to classic pop in numbers like the title track or “The Name Of This Thing is Not Love.” Finally, the ghost of “Uncomplicated” from “Blood + Chocolate” came home to roost on the three most intense and energetic tracks here. The gestalt of it all has succeeded in flooring me in a way that I really have not been floored with a Costello album in long decades. “Blood + Chocolate” is the last one I rate as a classic and I’m thinking that this one is better written than that one.

I’m now wondering that else might be tucked away in the last 30 years of Elvis Costello albums that I’ve not really bothered much with. As “North” had shown, I could be in for some diabolical hardship, but the gripping compulsion to listen to “The Delivery Man” for a week straight has certainly borne very real benefits. I can no longer think of Costello as a possibly spent eclectic force; flailing around in areas of little interest. It’s funny, because I saw Nieve and Costello on their duo tour in 1999 and was spellbound by a set that was largely crafted from material which I was indifferent to on disc. Then, six years ago, I saw Elvis Costello + The Imposters play a riotously entertaining “Revolver Tour” set that included the excellent “Bedlam” tucked in among a very strong program of classics where I mistakenly assumed that they were serving a tepid album track with their patented live “special sauce” that made me drink that Kool-Aid® like a true-believer. Nope. It was just a late period Costello classic and it was up to me to wake up to that reality. The weird thing is this… now I’m curious about hearing some Lucinda Williams.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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6 Responses to Steel Cage Match: Elvis 2003 VS Elvis 2004 [Part 2]

  1. Tim says:

    Lucinda Williams – start with Essence, move to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Those are my go-to’s in order of preference.

    With Elvis very little of the last two decades is anything that I find myself returning to often.
    He did an album with Anne Sophie von Otter (For the Stars) that I like probably more than anything else since “Painted From Memory” however I suspect that you wouldn’t like it.

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  2. Echorich says:

    So on board with your assessment of The Delivery Man Monk! EC takes on Country and finds his own voice. He injects himself into The Blues. He rips open the shuttered corner of his creative self and some of the chemistry of Imperial Bedroom and Blood + Chocolate mixes into the album. I sometimes think EC has a low attention threshold for producing music. If the spark goes out mid album, he doesn’t have time to reignite it, he’d rather move on to the next idea. When the work does find him returning to it, he tends to give it away or bury the results deep.
    But The Delivery Man is a shining moment in EC’s career – favorite song on the album – She’s Pulling Out The Pin – and for some reason, it’s missing from the track list you have above.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Those were good points on EC’s restlessness. Had the entire album been about Abel and the women, [intended as a possible Johnny Cash project] there’s all the chance in the world that it would have failed to gel with me. Instead, as a loose thematic framework, it became more successful as a conceit to build the less rigid, more organic album on. You may be referencing the DLX 2xCD version of “The Delivery Man,” which is now on my want list with “She’s Pulling Out The Pin.”

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      • Echorich says:

        I believe you are correct Monk, mine is the deluxe issue and since I have a set of favorite tracks converted for 0’s and 1’s playback, I wasn’t aware this gem wasn’t on the ‘basic’ version of the album.

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  3. For some reason long since forgotten, I got both “The Delivery Man” and “Il Sogno” from iTunes (was probably on special or something). TDM I return to every so often; “Il Sogno” was better than I expected, but not what I’d call a real EC album as much as an opera/classical audition piece. Speaking of floored, I’m floored you’re not at least passing familiar with Lucinda Williams! She’s always a welcome guest anytime she shows up on a track by others, and I rate her alongside Mavis Staples as an artist (obviously working in quite different genres).

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