CD Review of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane by Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello: Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
Recommended if you like
T-Bone Burnett, Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris
Label
HearMusic
Elvis Costello:
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

Reviewed by Will Harris

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T
here might’ve been a time when the idea of Elvis Costello doing a country album would’ve seemed like a ridiculous sonic experiment, but it seems so far back through the mists of time that it’s hard to remember when it was.

Oh, okay, fine: it would’ve been prior to 1981, which is when Elvis and the Attractions visited Nashville to record Almost Blue. There probably aren’t too many Costello fans who would select it as their favorite item within his discography, but it must be said that the mere idea of this so-called "angry young man" of the new wave scene recording an album of country music covers was distinctly mind-blowing at the time.

Many of Costello’s records have been peppered with plenty of Americana-inspired songsmithery since then, but if you believe the press release, then his latest endeavor, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, is the first time he’s fully embraced the acoustic since 1986’s King of America. It’s possibly no coincidence, then, that King and Secret share a common element: T-Bone Burnett, who twiddled the knobs for this new record much as he co-produced the earlier release. (Burnett also served as one of Costello’s co-writers on the record, contributing to two tracks, "Sulphur to Sugarcane" and "The Crooked Line.")

Elvis Costello

Given all the different sounds Costello’s pursued in his time, the fact that he’s returned to one we’ve heard before makes Secret feel rather like an old friend we’re already comfortable around. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that he’s opted to revisit "Complicated Shadows," which was originally included as part of 1996’s All This Useless Beauty, and to record his own version of the galloping "Hidden Shame," a track he passed along to Johnny Cash back in 1990 for the latter’s Boom Chicka Boom album. Fans of standards might even recognize "Changing Partners," which was most famously recorded by Bing Crosby; here, Costello maintains the same approximate arrangement as Crosby’s version, only opting to twang it up a bit to match its surroundings.

"I Felt the Chill" marks Costello's second recorded songwriting collaboration with Loretta Lynn, arguably surpassing the work they did on "Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve," which appeared on last year’s Momofuku. Of the solo compositions, the best is "My All Time Doll," which sounds like it could’ve emerged during the Spike sessions (Burnett was around for some of those as well, so maybe that would explain it), but pretty much any song which features a harmony vocal from Jim Lauderdale – which includes opener "Down Among the Wine and Spirits," "I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came," and "She Handed Me a Mirror" – proves to be a highlight.

Those who are looking for a rollicking good time throughout will go away disappointed, but Secret, Profane and Sugarcane makes for good Sunday morning or rainy-day listening. Once again, we’re reminded that precious few musicians can prove as prolific as Elvis Costello while still maintaining such a solid track record for quality. Long live the King of America.

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