When Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett first crossed acoustic guitars in 1984 in the guise of the Coward Brothers, each was seeking a new direction. Costello’s run with the Attractions, which had churned along so forcefully for a half decade, was running out of steam, as the title of 1983’s largely dreary Punch The Clock intimated, while Burnett had found his singer-songwriter hat to be ill-fitting. They shared a passion for what Burnett refers to as traditional American music, and each was engaged by the other’s fierce intellect. So they hit the road as a duo, in the process clearing their palates of accumulated residue.
The pairing re-energised Costello as a songwriter within the context of roots idioms, while cementing Burnett’s new role as studio collaborator. This opening up of new possibilities led to 1985’s King Of America, a “renegade” record, as Burnett described it, on which the neophyte producer (who’d established himself in a big way with Los Lobos’ 1984 landmark How Will The Wolf Survive?) paired Costello with members of Elvis Presley’s road band. While the LP reassured the critics, it failed to gain commercial traction, motivating Burnett to go for a smash when he once again took the helm for 1989’s Spike. The partners’ focused efforts resulted in the biggest album of Costello’s three-decade career.
Twenty years after their last performances as a duo, Costello and Burnett dusted off the Coward Brothers nameplate for a set at a 2006 San Francisco bluegrass festival. They were backed by three stalwarts of the genre, all Burnett regulars: fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolin player Mike Compton and standup bassist Dennis Crouch. It proved to be a foreshadowing moment: two years later, the three pickers, along with dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas, gathered in Studio A at Nashville’s righteously old-school Sound Emporium – where Burnett and his brilliant engineer Mike Piersante had cut the soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cold Mountain and Walk The Line, along with Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’ modern-day classic Raising Sand – to record Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
A far cry from 1981’s Almost Blue, Costello’s initial foray into hillbilly Southern music, the LP belongs instead to Burnett’s oeuvre, what
New York Times critic John Pareles has dubbed American magical realism. The seemingly straightforward premise involved dropping selected Costello songs and vocals into string band settings, cutting live to analogue tape and documenting whatever fireworks ensued.
The X factor would, of course, be Costello himself, starting with the songs he’d selected and presented to Burnett, and crucially extending to his vocal performances, which, left alone, would obliterate the acoustic overtones Burnett and Piersante sought to capture. The producer’s rigorous methodology, which involves recording softly and playing back loud, could have been designed with Costello in mind, given his tendency in recent years to go off the deep end in the climactic moments of songs – the equivalent of a string of exclamation marks when a simple ellipsis would have been sufficient.
In those instances when Costello resorts to bellowing – on the title refrain of “How Deep Is The Red” and the following “She Was No Good”, a pair of art songs from Costello’s 2005 Hans Christian Anderson commission for the Royal Danish Opera – the effect is lugubrious, stopping the record in its tracks. Happily, Costello otherwise manages to work within the constraints the subtle but intricate arrangements demand, deftly supported by the shadowing harmonies of Jim Lauderdale, which warm Costello’s attack considerably while remaining all but subliminal.
The most energised songs leave the deepest impressions. “Hidden Shame,” written for and cut by Johnny Cash, is viscerally percussive despite the absence of a drummer. “Complicated Shadows”, originally recorded with the briefly reunited Attractions for 1996’s All This Useless Beauty, and “My All Time Doll” share a noir-ish edginess that benefits from the interplay of the band’s fingerpicked rhythmic intensity and Costello’s restrained delivery. The delightful “Sulphur To Sugarcane”, a Burnett co-write in the spirit of Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere”, is little more than a litany of the names of US towns, salted with speculation about the undergarments (or lack thereof) of their female inhabitants. Emmylou Harris adds her burnished alto to the other Burnett co-write, “The Crooked Line,” which sashays like Johnny’n’June’s “Ring Of Fire”.
“Red Cotton”, the last of the Andersen songs, is the most gripping ballad entry, functioning as a sort of sequel to Randy Newman’s “Sail Away”, while “Changing Partners”, which Costello learned from a Bing Crosby record, closes the album on a classic note.
The songs are for the most part sharply serviceable, if not indelible, the playing impeccable, the sounds as overtone-rich and immediate as we’ve come to expect from Burnett and Piersante. Most crucially, Costello manages – apart from the previously cited cringe-worthy lapses – to play along with Burnett’s in-soft/out-LOUD approach, making this his most engaging album in a very long time.
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