Elvis Costello is a man known for his eclectic career. He’s been associated with everything from punk new wave to country. Costello demonstrates this adroitness with a great variety of musical genres in his latest creation, “National Ransom.”
The album is as eclectic as it comes, but what makes it truly enchanting is Costello’s theme of literally taking the listener somewhere with each song. Underneath the lyrics in the booklet, each song has listed a setting that Costello presumably intended to recreate with his music. The settings are as specific as “Doldrum, Rowley Moor – 1937” and as ambiguous as “On a Narrow Bed. Some Other Time.”
One of the most fascinating things about music, as with any art, is its ability to captivate you and send you to another place, and it’s so thrilling when a musician acknowledges and illustrates this so clearly. It adds a level of interest to the early 20th century music hall tunes you just might not be otherwise into.
The effects of “National Ransom” are brought down slightly by the fact that, at the end of the day, everyone has their own specific opinions of what a particular setting should sound like.
For example, I can’t quite make out the “Utopia, KS, 1915 To The Garden of Allah, Hollywood, California, 1947” setting from the seemingly rock inspired “Church Underground.” They mar the experience somewhat, but such things can be forgiven due to the subjective nature of the whole thing. Who knows what whimsical event or lyric may have inspired Costello’s setting?
What I would have liked to see, however, would have been an even greater variety of music and settings. Some even older folk tunes inspired by pre-20th century lore, perhaps. The album seems a bit too focused on certain genres at times.
One of the simplest, catchiest songs on the album is “A Slow Drag with Josephine.” Set “Under The Napoleonic Code – 1921,” the track is based off of a basic arrangement mainly involving Costello and an acoustic guitar. The bouncy feel and wistful melody of the song make it seem like something you could conceivably hear on the radio in 1921.
The electric country feel of “Five Words” makes it live up to its “Tucson, Arizona, 1978” title. In short, the song sounds like Johnny Cash meets electric guitar and heavy overdrive.
“I Lost You” (“On The Road To Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa – 2009”) is a song with striking similarity to “Five Words”; they’re both solid, catchy tunes. Though they have slightly different feels, they’re extremely similar in their electric country vibes in the context of the rest of the album. Some extra variety would have done well here.
An unexpected high point on the album is “Bullets for the New-Born King.” Though “Somewhere In Central America – 1951” makes me somewhat lost, the song still shines. The track has an extremely strong Simon & Garfunkel quality, and manages to capture some of the same magic as the duo. Not only does this make it stand out from much of the album, but it gives the song a fantastically delicate and melodious quality.
Other than a couple of unexpected tracks, the album seems to mainly jump back and forth between country and influences from the early 1900s. “A Voice in the Dark,” the album’s final track, is another one of the latter. Set in 1931, the song sounds like a bubbly Sinatra tune, largely due to Costello’s grand voice.
Overall, the songs that draw their inspiration from the early 20th century seem to possess more of a powerful and effective mood. Costello’s expertise on such unique genres in this day and age truly stands out. The country songs are well-crafted, too — the uncommon nature of the 1920s tunes in modern times makes those tracks particularly striking.
Costello has shown great songwriting ability and musical versatility in “National Ransom.” The idea of directly explaining the intentions of his music through the use of settings is a brilliant one for any artist who dabbles in such a wide variety of musical styles and eras.
By the same token, though it is in many ways eclectic, “National Ransom” comes across as primarily driven by only a couple of genres. For an album that’s meant to have the listener travel through time, a tiny bit of extra diversification would have helped.
Rating: 4 out of 5