National Ransom

Thetitle track of Elvis Costello’s latest album is something of a musical State ofthe Union address, and apparently even the rock stars feel like they’rehustling while the fat cats run wild: “Meanwhile we’re working every daypaying off the National Ransom.” Costello belts these lines out with hisinimitable venom. The song’s groove could be an eccentric cousin to “PumpIt Up,” and with Jerry Douglas on conventional lead guitar, and Marc Ribot(best known for the junkyard avant-garde angularity of his playing with TomWaits) on the artfully atonal one, Costello bemoans fiscal irresponsibilitywhile sounding like the rock and roll Cassandra he has always been (this is theman who, in song, longed for the day when he could tramp the dirt down onMaggie Thatcher’s grave).

Since his 1977 breakout,Costello has covered every conceivable genre: jazz, string quartet, opera,country, Celtic, bluegrass, cabaret, and beyond, yet when he returns to rock,he goes back to the drawing board, sometimes with an enhanced palette (like theSteely Dan chords of “The Spell That You Cast”). New directions arealso discernable: “Church Underground” suggests an unearthedCatholicism, no shock for the former Declan Patrick Aloysius, named for asaint, who claimed at the beginning of his career that he was only motivated by”revenge and guilt.”  Oh,the places he would go over three decades later: “The trivial secretsburied with profound / It’s enough to put a Church Underground.” 

Andyet this is not a Catholic album, even as it has his inimitable catholicity ofgenres. National Ransom dabbles in rockabilly, with touches of bluegrassand country, but it is particularly haunting when it harks back to around 1920,when Costello sounds like he could be auditioning for Boardwalk Empire. “Slow Drag With Josephine” could havedazzled a Vaudeville crowd, and “You Hung the Moon” beguiles withlush chords and the most confident baritone Costello has ever recorded. But thesong that hits hardest jump-cuts to the 30s. “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,”a cinematic narrative of desperation and beauty, strummed with a Django-likeswing, a song that could have lulled Hooverville breadlines. It tells a storyof a sad Jimmie Rodgers imitator just trying to get a gig, a “forgottenman” and an “indifferent nation,” and the images aredevastating, apropos, alas, for 2010. Some of us work to pay off the nationalransom, and many among us are desperately looking for any work at all. Theseare Elvis Costello’s songs for the new depression, and they are at their mostcompelling when they sound like an older one.