Elvis Costello: National Ransom

Elvis Costello spits out the lyrics of the opening title track like the punk he started out as in 1977. It’s a hard-charging number and his anger is back in the forefront. “Around the time the killing stopped on Wall Street/You couldn’t hold me, baby, with anything but contempt.” Marc Ribot supplies the electric guitar as longtime Attraction member Steve Nieve provides the Vox Continental Organ.

The entire musical bed changes on “Jimmie Standing In The Rain,” as the rock band morphs into a 1930s drummer-less British Music Hall band of acoustic guitar, violin, double-bass, trumpet and accordion. Vocally, Costello’s famed vibrato makes its entrance.

The ubiquitous T Bone Burnett produces to accentuate the fact that Costello has grown into one hell of a sophisticated singer/songwriter in both his concerns and his melodic inventions.

As the 16 tracks unfurl, the backing keeps changing dramatically. Famed Nashville session king Jerry Douglas provides sweet sentimentality on lap-steel while “Church Underground,” for instance, utilizes an effective quartet of flugelhorn, two trombones and baritone sax winding around Nieve’s grand piano and Stuart Duncan’s electric violin and viola. (Vince Gill, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell also contribute.)

Despite all the eclectic back-up, the heart and soul of National Ransom is still Costello’s lyrics and vocal flair. From the regretful assassin of “Bullets For The New-Born King” to the spooky “You Hung The Moon” with its 1919 séance story, Costello’s innate intelligence infuses these joints with class. And the that fact that he sounds so pissed-off, an anger missing from his last decade or so, suits him well.

In A Word: Relevant