Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

Elvis Costello

Hear Music, 2009

http://www.elviscostello.com

REVIEW BY: Jedediah Pressgrove

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/06/2009

I’m not sure if Elvis Costello has ever sounded this old. My uncertainty lies in the fact that I haven’t listened to every Costello album (if you include his collaborative albums, that’s more than 30 records). And what do I mean by old? As Stephen Thomas Erlewine put it so well, Costello reinvents “the past in his own image,” but that doesn’t sound like the case with Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. This time, roots music has taken Costello into the past. You could make that argument for other albums, such as Almost Blue (where Costello covers 12 country songs), but the difference is that you won’t hear any drums on this record.

Honestly, I’m not a roots music expert on any level, so there will be no more insight than this: Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is an interesting and sometimes fun listen.

“Sulphur To Sugarcane,” the best track of the second half, is a savage collection of dirty lines: “Down in Bridgeport / The women will kill you for sport / But in Worchester, Massachusetts / They just love my sauce.” His sauce. And what would a Costello song be without wordplay: “Women knock upon my door / In odd and even numbers / But none of them as well as I discovered in Columbus.” Jim Lauderdale’s careful harmony vocal is an effective foil to Costello’s unabashed style throughout the album, but he is especially important to “Sulphur To Sugarcane.” It’s like you’re being asked to sing along, preferably with the integrity of a wino and the scruples of a wild cat. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But the first great moment of this album is a sad one. “I Felt The Chill” marks the second album in a row that country music icon Loretta Lynn has co-written a song with Costello. The lyrics sting enough (“But I knew that we would go wrong / Just as they do in all those old tragic songs”), but Costello also knows how to vocally wring you in moments of defeat (just like one of his influences, Gram Parsons). If you’re especially pathetic, the dobro playing of Jerry Douglas is another reason to cry.

Authenticity has never been a problem for Costello. In all likelihood, you’re going to believe every damn word he says on this album, but sometimes the stories aren’t engaging. I concluded that the woman in “She Handed Me A Mirror” is a bastard, so obviously I’m not going to feel any sadness, and the song doesn’t go anywhere interesting anyway. “How Deep Is The Red?” is another track that could’ve been cut – it’s neither fun nor provocative. At the same time, I find myself admiring how stubborn Costello can be, as he whiningly asks the question again and again toward the conclusion.

I’m a Costello addict, a shameless whore for his work. And if you are as well, it’s easy to appreciate this album as another showcase of his versatility. If you simply have an interest in roots music, this is probably a solid purchase, notwithstanding that you might find the middle of the album (from “She Handed Me A Mirror” to “She Was No Good”) boring like I did. But my advice is to pick up one of Costello’s early albums if you haven’t – hell, get the debut, My Aim Is True – and then listen to Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Whether you like the music or not, it is remarkable to note the evolution, as lame as that term has become.

Rating: B

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© 2009 Jedediah Pressgrove and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Hear Music, and is used for informational purposes only.