The Delivery Man

It would be hard to pinpoint precisely when it happened, but at some point, Elvis Costello confused his record collection with his own career. It probably started with Almost Blue, his 1981 country-covers album. Costello had no business performing classics by Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, but for some reason, it worked out pretty well anyway; the worshipful inexperience he and his band brought to the task bent even the most resistant tracks to their will. Viewed as an aberration at the time, Almost Blue has set the standard for Costello's later excursions into whatever genre he feels like tackling, whether it needs his involvement or not.

Costello's simultaneously released new albums find him determined to prove once again that he can do right by whatever style suits him. But he never quite proves it. Recorded in Nashville, The Delivery Man has a combination of country, soul, and general American rootsiness that recalls Costello's great King Of America, but never quite matches its predecessor. A loose concept album about a possibly murderous deliveryman named Abel and the women in his life (represented on two different tracks by Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams), The Delivery Man only sparks to life when it slows down. The album-opening "Button My Lip" and the politically charged "Bedlam" exemplify an approach Costello can't pull off anymore: spitting venomous vocals over a beat that charges to keep pace with him. The searing ballad "Country Darkness" and "The Judgement" (originally written for Solomon Burke), on the other hand, capture Costello at his most searing. The songs scorch away the layers of formalism and academic appreciation and find a way to breathe on their own.

Commissioned by Italy's Aterbelletto dance company, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Il Sogno marks Costello's first attempt at a full-length orchestral piece. Intended to accompany a ballet adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, it patches together a little Debussy, a little Aaron Copland, and a lot of George Gershwin. Saxophonist John Harle cuts loose on some solos to bring out the jazz, and it all sounds pleasant enough to not offend, as well as inventive enough to confirm Costello as more than a dabbler. It also sounds like, at best, a minor pleasure, which seems like the only kind of pleasure Costello has to offer these days.

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