By Courtney E. Smith
In What Have You Done For Us Lately? we examine the recent output by legendary artists. Yeah, we’re happy when they return with a new album… but really, just how happy are we? We’ll gauge their recent output, take a hard look and see how it has held up… and maybe help you to find a few gems that you overlooked.
Elvis Costello is one of the most prolific composers, lyricists and performers of his generation. He is never inclined to stick with one genre, and pairs up with all collaborators who strike his fancy. A part of his charm is that Costello follows his wandering interests, generating unexpected works. You never know what will come next: a rocker, a charmer, an evolution or a retrospective. Since 2006, Costello’s past five albums (plus a few tracks of cultural note) have kept him firmly in the public eye, but in keeping with a public whose interests are increasingly more niche Costello may only pop into your vision now and then.
Speaking of now and then, now is a great time to put your eyes directly on Costello’s latest work, a collaboration with The Roots. To call this an unexpected pairing is both apt and misleading. Costello has been looking for a way to do soul (not blue-eyed) since his 1980 release, Get Happy!! He’s never quite hit the mark, until now. ?uestlove’s drumming style propels Costello’s voice and guitar into the right quarries to pull out the building blocks of an true R&B and soul record — not just a pastiche, but the real deal. Costello, in his measure, puts a rock sheen on top of things that makes it just unhinged enough to feel real. A highlight comes in “Cinco Minutos Con Vos,” with vocals from Marisol Hernandez of L.A.’s La Santa Cecilia (with whom Costello collabed on their 2013 release).
“That’s Me” from Ghost Brothers of Darkland County – 2013
A fascinating combination of people created this album: It’s built off a storyline written by Stephen King, features songs by John Mellencamp and the production of T Bone Burnett. Costello slides into the thick of that mix like a pro and this haunting track is what came out of the meleé.
“She’ll Be Back” from Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran – 2013
Jamey Johnson’s album of legendary songwriter Hank Cochran songs was termed by NPR “an unlikely tribute” as it was, but this particular track with Costello makes sense considering the two Americana/folk/bluegrass influenced albums he’d do proceeding it.
“Twist of Barbed Wire” from The Music Of Nashville: Season 1, Vol. 1 – 2012
This track is a brilliant and classic example of the stinging, biting Costello break up song. And surprisingly, considering the place it aired, not a country song at all but a total rocker. While Costello himself doesn’t sing this little ditty, he wrote it by request for the TV series Nashville, for which his old pal T Bone Burnett was acting as executive music producer. Not one but two characters would make the song their own in the course of the first season. Costello wrote a second song, “Moon Is High” that the same two characters would duet on at the end of the season, but it didn’t make quite as big a splash as this one.
National Ransom – 2010
Following Secret, Profane and Sugarcane in 2009 (which we’ll get to in a moment), Costello decided to do more of the same with T Bone Burnett and his backing band the Sugarcanes, a mixed bag of Imposters and other session musicians. And it’s Americana, again, but it’s not quite the same. Costello isn’t stuck in a rut, he’s simply pushing himself deeper into the mechanisms of folk music. But with this album he’s confident enough in his knowledge to package it under a concept. Each song represents a stated year in time. The twist: the music doesn’t match the year and your mind has to clear the confusion.
This folk country collaborative album, produced by Burnett, is classic Costello yelling about heartbreak over bluegrass and folk country instrumentation. One highlight is the accompanying vocals from the legend Jim Lauderdale, whose voice you’ve heard accompany the biggest country singers and whose compositions have been hits for many of those same artists. There are tracks here that bring Lyle Lovett’s particular interpretation of folk to mind and others that tap into the Bakersfield design, from Dwight Yoakam to Merle Haggard. They’re making the kind of music that mainstream country artists don’t mess with anymore, but that Burnett and Costello revere.
“(What’s So Funny) About Peace, Love & Understanding)” from A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All! – 2009
A strange collaboration featuring Stephen Colbert, Elvis Costello, Toby Keith, Feist, Willie Nelson and John Legend from Colbert’s variety hour holiday special. In classic Colbert tradition, he brought this motley crew together and somehow made it make sense. But who could have ever guessed that Costello would collaborate with Keith — or that Keith would find an occasion to be forced to learn the words to a Costello song?
Momofuku – 2008
Momofuku became one of his most critically lauded late-era albums, both for the collaborations on it with Jenny Lewis and her paramour Jonathan Rice (along with the Imposters) and for it’s lack of concept. In fairness, his previous four albums had contained that over-reaching concept or exploration of a genre down the line that some find tiring. This album harkened back to the rock style of 2002’s When I Was Cruel, which earned similar accolades.
“Carpetbaggers” from Acid Tongue – 2008
For her second solo album, Jenny Lewis enlisted Costello on a track that got his creativity churning by inviting him into a recording environment where half of his band were already at work. While the vocal styles of the two may not exactly flow together smoothly on this track, their lyrical styles are a solid match that would lead to a continued collaboration on his next album.
“Little Boxes” from Weeds – 2006
2006 was the apex of great artists recording their version of the theme song for Weeds. Costello offered his version for the first episode of season two, kicking off a fantastically curated list of artists wrangled by music supervisor Gary Calamar that would include Death Cab for Cutie, Englebert Humperdinck, Regina Spektor and Ozomatli. Costello’s take on the show’s theme song would also lead off the soundtrack for music from season two.
The River In Reverse – 2006
A love letter to the music of New Orleans is the best description for this album. Costello and Allen Toussaint found themselves thrown together a lot in 2005 as they played various benefits for the victims of hurricane Katrina. And so they decided to record an album, creating an album that’s got a lot of blues, a lot of Costello’s favored piano-driven pop and a wealth of songs composed by Toussaint over 40 years ago. The songs, both new and old, take on a very political tone in the wake of the disaster — something neither man has been a stranger to over the course of their careers.