In this phase of his career, Elvis Costello seems determined to convince people he can do just about anything—jazz (2003’s North), classical (2004’s Il Sogno), pop duets (2006’s The River In Reverse, recorded with Alan Toussaint) and collaborations with indie-rock darlings (last year’s Momofuku, which featured cameos from Jenny Lewis). He’s even shown off his comedy skills on 30 Rock and The Colbert Report, hosted chat show Spectacle, and popped up in, improbably enough, a Fall Out Boy song. The latest from the reliably prolific Cos (his 11th album this decade) is the T-Bone Burnett-produced Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, which can broadly be called his “country album” (though the same can be said, with just about as much accuracy, of 2004’s The Delivery Man).
Recorded over three days, it offers a lot to like, starting with the lovely album artwork by Tony Millionaire, the cartoonist behind the charmingly vulgar Maakies comic strip. There’s the stripped-down, twangy version of “Complicated Shadows,” which originally appeared on 1996’s All This Useless Beauty, and the gentle strings playing under the mournful “She Handed Me a Mirror,” a lyrical lament of unrequited love. Sure, there are moments that feel a little silly, such as the nonsense lyrics of “Sulphur to Sugarcane” (“The women in Poughkeepsie/Take their clothes off when they’re tipsy”), but it’s all in good fun.
While it’s easy to classify this as “country”—”I Felt the Chill” was co-written by Loretta Lynn, “The Crooked Line” has a guest vocal from Emmylou Harris—it’s important to note it’s really not much of a departure. Costello released an album of country covers, Almost Blue, back in 1981, and Burnett co-produced his 1989 record, Spike. It is, though, an enjoyable look at the acoustic side of an artist who clearly has many, many sides.