Omens are not good. It seems that Elvis Costello got happy, that his third marriage is contentment and rapture. Hence 2003’s soporific North was full of jazzy odes to domestic bliss and his new wife the jazz singer Diana Krall.
Happiness is a worry. Not for Elvis, I am sure he wants to be happy. It’s a worry for his fans. Costello tends to produce his best work when mining the bitter, angry and disillusioned part of his muse. When misanthropy murders method, when passion drowns the puns. Horrid thoughts of John Lennon after the birth of his son Sean and the sugar-coated turd that was Double Fantasy darken the sky.
The Delivery Man was recorded in Mississippi, and was bashed out in a two-week stretch in an attempt to capture the sprit of southern soul – all muscle shoals and dusty old Stax 7″ singles. A loose narrative thread binds the songs together, stories of women of three different ages trapped inside a small town in the southern states of America.
The opening Button My Lip bludgeons your senses, built on distorted bass and a rattle of high hats, so claustrophobic that you can see Costello’s spittle on the mic. It blasts away both the cobwebs and my preconceptions. Yet it still tries a little too hard, like he is striving to prove he can still rock, still bite, still cut it. It’s a fault line that surfaces on other tracks, the verbose stampeding Bedlam, the over egged vaudeville waltz of She’s Pulling Out The Pin and the clanking Needle Time. It’s a musical terrain that Tom Waits covers with greater conviction and style.
Monkey To Man’s lyrical conceit, evolution from a monkeys point view is ambitious and very clever but really rather pointless. The pretty but slight There’s A Story In Your Voice wastes Lucinda Williams gritty voice on a slip of a song.
Just when it seems the LP could have been recorded in Monmouth for all the essence of soul it contains, the alchemy materialises. Costello slows down and sings rather than barks the words to Either Side of The Same Town. It’s a slow burning, tender rewrite of James Carr‘s Dark End Of The Street and features restrained, plaintive piano chords building to a beautiful fleeting falsetto vocal in the chorus.
Infidelity and longing in the The Delivery Man, the song carried by Steve Nieves melancholy Wurlitzer riff. The Name of This Thing Is Not Love barb wired guitar scrapping and picking, Costello rummaging through the rotten aftermath of an affair, watching “her pick over her broken playthings”.
Emmylou Harris‘ duet on the majestic Heart Shaped Bruise attains the heights of her work with Gram Parsons. Heartbreaking pedal steel guitar enveloping the tale of a failed and fading marriage, where there is nothing left to take and nothing left to give. Harris’ voice vivid and needy, Elvis’ bruised hushed and aching. A charcoal hearted lament. .
Simple, uncluttered and breezy, the voices of Costello and Harris close the CD with only a ukulele for company on The Scarlet Tide. It’s a snap shot of the album of as a whole, when the songs are stripped of their musical baggage and bluster they are free to shine. Middle age men rocking out only obscure the strength and passion in material.
Although not an unqualified success, The Delivery Man proves that there is life in the old sod yet.