For the last dozen or so years, Elvis Costello has switched genres like he was trying on shirts at the outlet mall: orchestral works, New Orleans R&B with Allen Toussaint, stately ballads with Swedish messo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter, a writing collaboration with Burt Bacharach and a jazz summit with Bill Frisell. He even managed to squeeze in a bit of rock ‘n’ roll.
While his musical bed-hopping sounds like fun, it has served to render his artistic vision a bit fuzzy. The “what will Costello come up with next?” question started to grow tiresome a few outings ago.
Which brings us to Secret, Profane & Sugarcane — his first for Starbucks’ Hear Music imprint — wherein he calls on producer T Bone Burnett and gets the full-on T Bone treatment. Yup, acoustic guitar, Dobro, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, banjo, accordion, mountain music arrangements, the tunes configured into contemporary takes old-timey Americana (matched by the CD packaging).
You may recall that Burnett was at the helm for Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ Raising Sand, a serendipitous convergence of talent that went Grammy wild.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane wholly misses out on that sort of wonder, and comes off as all the more disingenuous as a result. While Costello has penned (and co-penned) some worthy songs here — and repurposed at least one, “Complicated Shadows” — the best of them would sound more convincing in a less stylized format.
Additionally, his voice is too strident and brassy for the relative delicacy of the musical backdrops. While he has mercifully toned down the vibrato that he fixated on for a spell, his singing still has an intrinsic sneer that stands at odds this sort of pleasant-afternoon porch music.