After more than a decade spent not doing what’s expected of him, Elvis Costello can now be expected to do the unexpected. Only now we’re treated to a return to form of sorts, as Costello, in his current incarnation as folksy troubadour, comfortingly circles back around to his country and bluegrass roots. Produced by T. Bone Burnett, with whom Costello has enjoyed a long and felicitous collaboration (most notably on 1986’s King of America), Secret, Profane & Sugarcane locates the singer in an old-timey musical landscape populated by liars, murderers, cheaters, and the cheated. With cunning artwork by Tony Millionaire, the album unfolds as a loosely rendered song cycle touching on infidelity, loneliness, and death in the Old South.
Much of Secret is comprised of songs from Costello’s own canon and reconstituted in bluegrass arrangements, lending to the lived-in ease of the material. It has a rambunctiousness too, perhaps the result of a spry three-day recording schedule in Nashville, that can be heard when the band occasionally interrupts a verse with hoots and hollers. All of the songs feature some combination of fiddle, banjo, or slide guitar that kicks up a dust storm on the uptempo numbers and fades to a maudlin glow during the ballads. The session musicians play more than competently, but the emotional duress comes from that voice. Costello has fashioned his voice into a creaky, appealing caterwaul that brings needed gristle to the occasionally too-prim but proficient backing band. “Complicated Shadows,” a tough strut admonishing youthful hotheadedness, was originally written for Johnny Cash and elicits Costello’s once-familiar snarl.
Costello’s lyrical erudition and country-gentleman demeanor take the proceedings from the front porch to the Grand Ole Opry. There’s a tantalizing mystery to the mirrors, perfumes, and dyed cotton sheets scattered in these romantic tales: “The Crooked Line,” a duet with the steadfast Emmylou Harris, is a bemused reflection on the fidelity asked for in a ripening marriage; “Hidden Shame” creates a feisty rhythm for a confession of a lifetime of petty crimes; while the bawdy, Louis Jordan-esque “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is a good-natured rib tickler, with lines like “The women in Poughkeepsie/Take their clothes off when they’re tipsy.”
While more rustic than his early-‘80s foray into country, Almost Blue, Secret is a bit slapdash in execution, and also a little too easy to picture being for sale at the same place you pick up your lattes. But unlike Costello’s other excursions (“Now I’m a classical composer!” “Now I’m a New Orleans jazzbo!”), Secret waters down his pretensions without losing his welcome pop sophistication.