“You can’t hold me, baby, with anything but contempt,” Elvis Costello sings amid dueling guitars on the explosive title track that opens his latest album, “National Ransom” (Hear Music). It’s a classic Elvis indictment – this one taking on greed and conspicuous consumption – and an indicator that we may be about to experience Costello in full-on acerbic rock mode.
Nothing wrong with that, but Costello quickly disabuses us of that notion. The second track, “Jimmie Standing in The Rain,” is a character study of a lost soul that wouldn’t be out of place in Weill’s “Threepenny Opera.” It’s positively literary – “Nobody wants to buy a counterfeited prairie lullaby in a colliery town,” he notes almost matter-of-factly in one deceivingly elaborate verse – and a sure sign that when it comes to the whole of “National Ransom,” all bets are off.
Unlike some of Costello’s albums – which can hew to a certain style, almost to a fault – “National Ransom,” recorded largely live in studio in Nashville with his band the Sugarcanes, takes us on a true musical journey, through rock, cabaret, country, Americana and vaudeville, sprinkled with glimpses of rockabilly and even the archaic folk that’s informed Bob Dylan’s recent output.
The results are both dizzying and stunning. Lyrically, his turns of phase are as adept as ever – “hands and bells are only there for the wringing,” he sings on the acrid “Bullets for the New-Born King” – but his scope is even more ambitious than usual. On the languid “All These Strangers,” Costello weaves a patchwork of villains and ominous locations in what amounts to an epic, atmospheric parable about love and trust – which in Costello’s world can amount to “a deal done in Benghazi and Belgrade … upon a scimitar or other crooked blade.”
The album’s most analogous counterpart is probably 1989’s “Spike,” which was similarly varied in style and included some of Costello’s most accessible material, like “Veronica” and the Paul McCartney collaboration “This Town.” “National Ransom” has a bit more of the hookless meandering that can sometimes drag a Costello album down, but the great thing about his scope here is that it quickly gives way to other tracks that are in turns intriguing, resonant and on more than one occasion – the dark ballad “You Hung the Moon” comes to mind – downright beautiful.
Besides, at 16 songs (and coming on the heels of 2009’s almost equally stellar “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” – does the man ever sleep?), he’s allowed a few strolls down dead-end alleys. That 30 years on Costello can show such versatility and heart bodes well for both him and us. And the fact that he can still be pretty prickly doesn’t hurt either.