There’s never been an Elvis Costello album like National Ransom, even though nothing about the record is especially new. Working again with producer T-Bone Burnett, Costello cycles through his usual obsessions with archaic Americana, stately pop, and early rock, in songs that tell stories—both humorous and tragic—about economic exploitation and entertainers’ lonely lives. But perhaps because Costello has recently been reflecting on his career and his musical passions while hosting the Sundance Channel talk show Spectacle, National Ransom feels more comprehensive than usual. This isn’t Costello’s torch-song album, or his country-blues album, or his Euro-folk album; it’s all those combined, with a little pinch of New Orleans and some incidental nods to new wave.
National Ransom is long—too long, really—and it falls too often into the “venerable old rocker” trap of thinking that music is better the more it sounds like it could’ve been recorded by Alan Lomax. But unlike Burnett’s recent Grammy-bait album with Costello pals Elton John and Leon Russell, National Ransom has a remarkably high percentage of memorable songs, like the jumped-up acoustic-guitar ramble “A Slow Drag With Josephine,” the pleasantly reverberating rocker “Five Small Words,” the elegant love song “You Hung The Moon,” the Dylan-esque lament “Bullets For The New-Born King,” the grandly weepy honky-tonk ballad “That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving,” and the off-kilter rockabilly/power-pop hybrid “The Spell That You Cast.” Costello has made an album that’s unfocused by design, and better because of it.