Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
[Rating: 3.5 stars]
The perpetually prolific Mr. Costello is back with another cycle of songs only he could write-passionately complex, multi-layered beauties of linguistic brilliance and adroit melodic invention. Although produced by T Bone Burnett as essentially a bluegrass outing-no drums, just acoustic guitars, fiddle, mandolin, accordion-it’s far from the simple country jam one might expect; why exactly the two old friends decided to dress these tales up in the clothes of the American South is not overtly evident, as these are mostly worlds away from country songs in terms of non-diatonic harmonic progressions and verbal density.
Even though some of the songs resound like Hamlet in overalls-majestic poetry in pauper’s rags-the splendor of the songwriting makes up, mostly, for the limitations of the musical palette. Costello wrote, for example, not one but four songs inspired and informed by the real facts of the singer Jenny Lind’s 1850 All-American Tour, which brought two icons into her orbit: P.T. Barnum, who promoted her, and Hans Christian Andersen, who loved her. It’s not conventional content for a country song, but concocting songs with unlikely content has always been one of his strengths. Songs like the stunning “How Deep Is The Red” and “She Handed Me A Mirror,” both Lind-linked, are as great as his greatest work. Nor does he shy away from his characteristic love of wordplay here, as exemplified, in the midst of a home-cooked hoedown, by a reflection on three meanings of the word “bow”: “A bow shoots arrows through the air/A bow drags notes from a fiddle/But who is the beau of a poor girl’s dreams?” Though surrounded in a studio semi-circle by Nashville’s finest (including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Stuart Duncan on fiddle), he seems to simultaneously savor and defy the musical traditions of Americana, using cadences and progressions much closer to the spirit of Charles Ives than Charlie Rich. But the luminosity of his language throughout, in concord with the passion invested vocally into every song, makes this bluegrass-winged journey a thoroughly rewarding, if sometimes confounding, trip.