The Delivery Man
By: Eric Greenwood
It's hard to put the beat down on Elvis Costello. I mean, look at what he's done for us. He's made misogyny "artistic." He's given bad teeth a good name. He's duetted with Darryl Hall. Ok, so he doesn't always hit a home run, but in the grand scheme of things, he's done way more good than bad, as long as you let the good count twice. The expanded version of This Year's Model alone tramples years' worth of new age wankery. But then again, if his current trend of dabbling in any whim that strikes his fancy continues, the bad could catch up in a hurry, and we might remember him for his bloated pretentiousness instead of his badass rebelliousness (and his red shoes).
Elvis Costello puts out two kinds of records: Traditional rock and roll records and stuffy compositional works. The latter of which are almost always mediocre, only garnering any attention at all because of the name stamped on the front and the novelty that lies therein. Costello's rock records are typically his saving grace, give or take. The Delivery Man is Costello's quick follow-up to 2002's underrated When I Was Cruel, and it avoids the slick pop production of his more commercial work in favor of dirty, live-sounding, bluesy rock. And for that reason alone it succeeds on a level many of his pop records have failed.
After the jazz-lite, heart-on-the-sleeve atrociousness of last year's North and the concurrent release of this year's Il Sogno, the man needs to roll up his sleeves and let it rock a bit. And The Delivery Man pretty much, well, delivers. As always, Costello surrounds himself with stellar musicians (two-thirds of the Attractions are intact), who know his ticks well enough to predict his every move on the guitar. That goes double for keyboardist Steve Nieve, who has been the backbone of so many classic Costello albums and live shows.
The bristle of the opener, "Button My Lip", sounds loose and unhinged. Costello's voice is as aggravated and harsh as it's ever been. It's hard not to imagine this musical environment being somewhat forced, even with the angry years that made Costello famous under his belt. British musicians have been copping American blues and southern flair for decades, but that smug, dilettantish attitude that folks like Sting and Peter Gabriel and even Bono, to an extent, purvey has always unnerved me. Costello's proclivity for such "look how many musical hats I can wear" projects of late betray a fondness for that type of "I'm an artist" bullshit that makes a mockery of so many once-great rockers.
Overlooking the pompousness of being schooled in the blues by a wobbly Englishman, The Delivery Man is a solid, albeit slightly over-learned and patronizing, collection of bluesy rock. There's no denying Costello's penchant for clever wordplay. The man can make the most awkward rhyming couplet sound genuinely inspired. Even though "Country Darkness" bears a striking resemblance to his classic "Little Triggers", Costello makes it stand out with his pugnacious delivery and bizarre rhyming scheme where "solve" and "bulb" ostensibly make a clean rhyming verse.
"Monkey To Man" is another tongue in cheek single from the master of bile. Costello briefly betrays the raw theme of the record for a few well-placed overdubs. As always, his voice sounds even more urgent when he double-tracks it, but studio trickery is practically non-existent here. Thankfully, Costello aborted the concept album approach that he had flirted with for these songs, so they have a less heady feel, though compositionally, they are studious and exact. Madonna's forced vibrato is to Costello's pedantic pop song.
The duets with Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams are more distracting than effective. Williams' affected twang sounds laughably out of place on "There's A Story In Your Voice." Costello never fares well with vocal collaborators. His voice sticks out like a sore thumb, and it should be left alone. The temptation to flavor these songs with genuine southern girls must have been overwhelming for Costello, though, as he is a dilettante with a perfectionist's bent.
It's pointless to hold The Delivery Man up to pre-1982 Costello because it won't rank, but up against the bloated latter half of his career it makes a significant dent. It's not a clichéd return to form; it's just a good Elvis Costello record, of which there are dozens.