Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
It comes as no surprise that Elvis Costello is going acoustic, even a little rustic on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Costello dabbled in old country standards on 1981’s Almost Blue and elements of roots music have popped up on a number of his albums. Costello could rest on his weighty rock laurels. Instead he has opted to experiment with other genres including jazz, soul, and torch standards. He’s worked with Burt Bacharach, with his wife, Diana Krall, Tony Bennett, and he even stepped out for an album with the classical Brosky Quartet.
Teaming up with super producer T. Bone Burnett is a natural progression for Costello although cynics might claim he’s looking to claim a bit of the magic that propelled Robert Plant and Alison Krauss to Grammy wins thanks to Mr. Burnett’s oversight. Surely Costello’s earned the right to put a Grammy award on his mantle but I doubt that is the source of his motivation for working with Burnett. Both men are smart, versatile songwriters with a voracious love of music. They previously worked together on Costello’s 1986 acoustic release King of America. Why wouldn’t they want to re-team to honor a genre that helped define America and that Burnett has perfected?
While Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is a study in American roots music it originated with a commission from the Royal Danish Opera. Costello contracted with them to create a chamber opera about Hans Christian Anderson. At this time Costello had become enamored of a 19th century Swedish singer, Jenny Lind who toured the States in 1850. This inspired Costello to re-imagine his chamber music as it might have been played in that era. Hooking up with Burnett and recording in Nashville with some of the towns veteran players made perfect sense for the project. The stellar line-up includes Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Mike Compton, and Dennis Crouch. The accomplished ensemble approaches their role with a subtlety that offers accompaniment without drawing attention away from Costello or the song.
Not all songs come from the chamber opera. Loretta Lynn co-wrote “I Felt The Chill,” a heartbreaker about a cheating lover. Burnett chips in on the cautionary tale “Sulphor To Sugarcane” a big bouncy number that bounces off of violin and mandolin string, and “The Crooked Line.” Costello covers the old standard “Changing Partners,” a waltz originally recorded by Patti Page and Bing Crosby, and he dusts off and re-arranges his own “Complicated Shadows.” “She Handed Me a Mirror” has a distinct Stephen Foster feel to it and "Hidden Shame" is a flat-out knee-slapper. My personal favorite on the release is “My Own Time Doll.” It features Costello’s wicked, clever word play, and a menacing intensity that makes one wonder exactly how far would he go for the love of girl. It’s what makes Costello – well, so Costello.