National Ransom is Elvis Costello’s second consecutive album recorded with producer T-Bone Burnett, and though it sounds very much like an intentional sequel to the barnstorming Secrets, Profane & Sugarcane, the veteran songwriter, who now seems more comfortable with Americana, elects to tinker with the genre’s formula. A musical shapeshifter in the truest sense of the word, Costello draws on his eclectic history and flirts promiscuously with punk, bluegrass, and jazz throughout the album. This makes National Ransom an especially busy cocktail, but the ingredients are so rich and full of flavor that it’s impossible not to be charmed.
The country-tinged “Five Small Words” and the stripped-down “A Slow Drag with Josephine” highlight the songwriter’s diversity, the former a bitter ballad suitably shaded by its dark twists on bluegrass guitar. Given its simplicity, the latter is mesmerizing: Costello works wonders armed only with a mandolin, fiddle, and dusty saloon piano, setting the tone for a pleasantly unpredictable hour. The title track and “The Spell That You Cast” are the record’s more aggressive turns, generic slogs through verse-chorus-verse and matinée lead guitar; these songs don’t quite feel expansive enough when compared with their highly crafted siblings.
Throughout his career, Costello has also stood out for an erudite fork tongue and has relentlessly exercised his broad vocabulary to create pertinent lyrics and razor-sharp witticisms. National Ransom is no different, its title track an assault on Wall Street and a militant anthem for the working classes: “Mother’s in the kitchen picking bones for breakfast/There’s a wolf at the window with a ravening maw.” Costello is equally adept at weaving absorbing narratives, with “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” tackling the nouveaux Depression through a struggling musician and “You Hung the Moon” visiting a family attempting to make contact with the ghost of a fallen soldier from the first World War. Though there are tracks that are hard to pin down thematically, even with the help of footnotes attached to the lyrics sheet that serve to timestamp each track, the stories are second to none. Costello is a seasoned lyricist, clearly a very smart man, and his prose throughout National Ransom is a lustrous testament to that.
There are very few artists with the desire to experiment with their sound during the twilight of their careers, and even fewer with the ability to do so convincingly, but Costello does just that with this enchanting, parti-colored medley. It may not be his magnum opus, despite “Church Underground” and “Five Small Words” recalling vintage Costello at his finest, but National Ransom is a stellar entry in his already hefty canon.