Musical ambition is, on the whole, a good thing. I much prefer artists who want to challenge themselves and expand their sound over artists who want to cash in on the same thing over and over again (is that understood, Coldplay?). However, proving the breadth and depth of your record collection doesn’t mean you’re going to make great music.
Elvis Costello is (was? is?) one of the greatest rock songwriters ever but the last twenty years have seen him attempt to prove that he’s So Much More. And I tend to agree with him in theory, but in practice he’s chosen to do so with a series of “genre” albums, the latest of which is Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, Costello’s second country album (he released King of America in 1986 and it is a phenomenal album, perhaps the best genre exercise ever – but more on that in a minute).
Genre albums puzzle me; if you dig some style of music, why not synthesize it into your own sound and expand things that way rather than just choosing to write an album in particular genre (I don’t write individual songs in a particular genre, they just sort of end up how they end up)? You’ll still probably piss of the Pitchforkers and you can show everyone how you are more than the sum of your parts or whatever it is Elvis Costello is trying to prove. Or maybe he isn’t trying to prove anything; maybe he’s just doing what he likes. And that’s great too – for him. Just as I said about Condo Fucks, I don’t care that you record whatever you feel like, but I do care that I’m expected to shell out between twelve and twenty bucks for it. I know you think I can get the album cheaper if you make an exclusive deal with Target or Walmart or Best Buy, but fuck you if you do that: I’d rather pay more for an album at a real record store. You know, where they have selection? Also, I think I’m going to start openly encouraging people to pirate albums by artists that ink “exclusive” deals with non-record stores.
In case you can’t tell by my many digressions from the topic at hand, I’m not very impressed with Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane. It’s not just the unwieldy as hell title, nor is it that I generally have no regard for the genre album; I loved King of America, but there’s something organic about that album that is completely missing on Secret, Profane, and Billy Zane. Costello’s new country album smacks of what his ill-advised My Flame Burns Blue (Elvis singing with an orchestra and trying to be all pretty) smacked of a couple years ago – forced beauty. We’re supposed stand by and applaud Costello’s grasp of old-school country, especially since he hired some of that genre’s best living musicians to back him on the album. But Costello ruins the otherwise tolerable opener “Down Among the Wines and Spirits” by ending it with a Mariah Carey-esque attempt at a vocal flourish that is irritating, embarrassing, and hilarious all at once. The whole album feels like Costello really wants you to know that he gets old country music, and I don’t doubt that he gets it. But that don’t mean he should do it – I get hip-hop completely, but you won’t catch me attempting a collaboration with Mad Lib any time soon.
Throughout Secret, Profane, and Zombie John McCain, Costello seems to be lyrically imprisoned by his chosen style. Songs like “Hidden Shame” and “Complicated Shadows” (which is also actually kinda tolerable if you pretend Johnny Cash never lived and/or never recorded Live at Folsom Prison and why the fuck would you do that?), among many others, are country cliches about guns, gals, love, death, heartache, et cetera. Not the sort of thing I’m looking for from a guy who once wrote, “It’s the force of habit/ if it moves, then you fuck it/ if it doesn’t move, you stab it”, which comes from “Suit of Lights,” one of the many highlights of King of America. In case you haven’t gathered, I would recommend you check out King of America over Secret, Profane, and Searing Pain – it’s the first time Costello went down this road and it’s about forty times more satisfying.
The whole album isn’t awful, but I certainly don’t give a fuck about it either. There’s nothing wrong, as I said, with trying to broaden your musical horizons, but there’s better ways to go about it than by slapping together an overlong (the slow songs on Sneakers, Propane, and John Coltrane feel like they’re 90 minutes long, especially the plodding “She Handed Me a Mirror” which makes me wish she’d broken one over Costello’s obstinate head), pretty bad country record. Imagine if My Morning Jacket had just made a one-off R & B record instead of allowing their love of Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye to inflect their awesome, guitar-rock sound. The result would’ve been far less satisfying than the exemplary Evil Urges, an album that pretty much frees MMJ from any genre tags you could apply to them. Also, Evil Urges just kicks ass. That’s the real point here. Got it? Good.
Or, to use a more classic example, The Clash were always a punk band in spirit, even as they blended rockabilly, reggae, and jazz into London Calling, an album that, admittedly, almost no one even listens to anymore, much less reveres as some sort of sacred blueprint of How to Do It Exactly Right. And, when Joe Strummer started working with the Mescaleros, he blended all of his favorite styles (all of them) into their sound, creating songs that were spiritually consistent with his status as The One True Punk but sonically, they were wonderfully varied. Perhaps, then, Elvis Costello needs to take a page from the Joe Strummer Guide to Aging Gracefully; it’s not that Costello shouldn’t find other genres to like and incorporate into his music, it’s that he needs to remember from whence he came.
And here’s the thing that galls me more than anything about Elvis Costello’s genre exercises (Pitchfork alluded to this in their review of Sucrets, Throat Pain, and The Hill of Dunsinane and I’m big enough to admit they were right) is that he’s awesome at rocking. If you like Elvis Costello, I guarantee you that your favorite of his albums is either Armed Forces, This Year’s Model, My Aim is True, or maybe When I Was Cruel (which is my favorite). And they’re all rock albums. Some of the best ones ever recorded, where Costello isn’t afraid to sneer a little and let his wonderfully snarky voice be a bit obnoxious. There’ s room to expand on that palette without abandoning it, but over the last few years, it’s as if Costello has morphed into one of the snobs who turned their noses up at his early shit – as if he’s ashamed to have bothered us with that so-called “pub-rock,” which includes classics like “Pump It Up”, “Radio, Radio,” and “Oliver’s Army,” among many others. I’m not usually given to telling musicians what to do, but: goddammit, Elvis Costello, go find an electric guitar, an amp, a drummer, and get back to doing something you kick ass at.