Emerging from an uneven middle period of marital discord, free-range experimentation and ill-advised beards, the artist formerly known as Declan MacManus appears to have upped both his work rate and his quality control. Because this is a strong and lusty country-punk album placing him in Tom Waits or Neil Young territory.
Recorded in a stone-walled shack in Mississippi, The Delivery Man is closer in its attack to the 2002 Imposters record, When I Was Cruel, than Costello’s polished but inert collection of jazzy laments from last year, North. Initially conceived as a semi-concept album about a Deep South town, the narrative became fragmented on the way. The end result is still steeped in Dixieland storytelling, but pleasingly ramshackle. Linear plots are out, twisted and trampled by spine-shakingly loud guitars. The White Stripes approach, raw and bloody.
As on When I Was Cruel, many of the tunes are thrillingly visceral and amped to distortion level. The spittle-flecked sneer of “Button My Lip”, the valve-blowing rant of “Bedlam”, the no-brakes pick-up truck bouncing down a muddy track that is “Needle Time”?Costello hasn’t sounded this energised for years. Maybe he is throwing down a gauntlet to young pretenders like Jack White. If so, he has an ace up his sleeve in more melodic numbers like “There’s A Story In Your Voice”, on which guest vocalist Lucinda Williams bleeds ragged soul. But the tenderest mercies arise from a trio of Emmylou Harris duets, especially the sepia-toned steel guitar lullaby “Heart Shaped Bruise” and the pastoral, banjo-stroking finale “Scarlet Tide”, Costello’s characteristic bluster giving way to a lightness of touch.
The Delivery Man is not without flaws. A good third of it clanks and flails along, invoking the other Elvis and Robert Johnson as alibis for clumsy excursions into moonshine-drunk Americana. But it still proves that 50-year-olds can rock out with dignity. And most of the time, it delivers.