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Elvis Costello
Secret, Profane and Sugarcane Jeremy Allen , June 5th, 2009 09:55

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Another day, another pointless Elvis Costello album. Could anyone truly love this record, rather than merely listening to it once (twice at the most), appreciating the craftsmanship of country and bluegrass' finest session musicians, before filing it alongside those other pointless and maddening Elvis Costello releases from a career now littered with superfluous filler. In times of yore the name Elvis Costello was synonymous with quality, a guarantee that what you'd get would be punchy, pointed and pertinent. His anger felt like desperation translated into musical edge, driven by disaffection and a young man's truth as he saw it. Not a young man anymore, Elvis looks like your archetypal, avoirdupois baby-boomer comfortable in his own saggy middle-aged skin, living in a big fuck-off castle with Diana Krall. Which begs the question, should he by now have ceased trading under the name Elvis Costello? Declan McManus, his real name, would surely be a better fit for his latter day output.

Elvis Costello was a creation to piss people off (the name Elvis was chosen when the King had just died), and in a sense he's still pissing people off, but for different reasons. Some may argue that the frighteningly prescient King of America(incidentally recorded with T Bone Burnett, who produces this) was the moment he jumped the shark, though he also recorded 'Blood and Chocolate' in the same year and was a full eight years away from his last great album Brutal Youth. You could also argue that it was when Costello switched from Columbia Records to Warner Bros. that he lost the plot, but again, Brutal Youth was still to come. Instead, the moment that Declan McManus buried Elvis Costello was when he recorded Demis Roussos' 'She' for the soundtrack to Notting Hill. Artistically moribund up to this point, 'She' sounded the death knell on his artistic lifespan, the chimera that indicated he had passed over into the next life, that he was now comfortable recording snotty, smug, middle-aged tosh for wankers in people carriers.

And so we come to the latest instalment of Elvis: The Coffee Table Years. Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is a soul album with little soul, a country album from a man from a different country. It sounds expensive, and probably is, but the one expense spared is toil; Elvis' visceral rage has been replaced with hobby music. He jams with great musicians and works with the biggest names, but for all the name dropping, Elvis Costello and the Attractions will always roll off the tongue best. 'I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came', written with Loretta Lynn, is pretty enough; 'Hidden Shame', a song recorded by Johnny Cash, pushes all the right country buttons, and 'The Crooked Line', featuring Emmylou Harris on backing vocals sounds almost authentic, but there's just something so prefab and vainglorious about the whole thing. This is life-support machine music. For anyone hoping for one final hurrah of artistic integrity, you will find nothing here. Elvis, it seems, left the building a long time ago.

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Alex Saint
Jun 5, 2009 4:07pm

Well this is exactly what's wrong with music reviewers. They spend more time trying to be cute with words finding any way they can to insult the artist they are supposed to be reviewing just so that they can pat themselves on the back at how clever they think they are. (Elvis has left the building? wow, that must've taken all night) And in the process, don't actually review anything. God forbid Mr. Allen actually write about the album he's supposed to be reviewing and give readers some useful information about the recording. I've only heard a couple of songs so far off the new Elvis Costello recording, so I'll reserve judgment (though I quite liked the two that I've heard).

No doubt Elvis had a creative run from '77 to 82 that's as impressive as any run in pop/rock history. I'll admit that his varied projects since the mid-80s have been hit and miss, but at least he continues to do interesting things. I've long since learned to disregard Elvis Costello reviewers who can't seem to get past 1979. 'North' and 'Painted from Memory' for example were routinely trashed by this crowd, and both are among Elvis' finest works.

To the reviewer, if you want to keep listening to Armed Forces, there's something easy to do... Put on Armed Forces. And if you want a career as a music critic, I'd suggest learning how to review albums.

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Bob Machin
Jun 6, 2009 9:33am

Pretty much on the money as far as I'm concerned, though I would be a bit more brutal: 'Spike' was the album that convinced me that the shark was now receding into the distance; the last one that I listened to twice and then chucked across the room, vowing never to buy another Costello album (a promise to myself that I've had no difficulty keeping). From there forward, it's been all quality and no vitality, and you don't have to be trapped in your youth to recognise that the likes of Get Happy and Imperial Bedroom are coming from a different person. I don't blame him - we all run out of tunes in the end - but having personally experienced many times the force of nature that was EC in his earlier years - on stage and on record - I certainly don't want to listen to a pale impression of it now.

I'd disagree in one particular - I recently concluded ( that King of America might just have been the Costello highspot and tipping point. Might have gone over the top slightly, but arguably it's the perfect mix of musicality and passion (albeit of a somewhat spent sort). But at gunpoint, would I choose it over the aforementioned albums, or Armed Forces, or This Year's Model to take to a desert island. Hmmm...

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John Doran
Jun 6, 2009 2:21pm

Indeed. I don't think anyone's saying that Costello didn't used to be an exceptionally good song writer - even if a nasty little racist shit.

But where are all the people pointing out that for the last twenty years, he's been little other than the Sting it's ok to like.

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Ross McConnell
Jun 9, 2009 11:14pm

This review is awful for so many reasons.

You say that perhaps people will buy this album looking for “one final hurrah of artistic integrity”. I sincerely doubt that. Costello constantly strives to do new things; no-one is going to like everything he does, but surely that’s better than trotting out the same album year after year.

You spend a lot of space commenting on what he looks like these days. Do you honestly believe that interesting music is made exclusively by young and beautiful people? Castigating someone for having “saggy middle-aged skin” and, God forbid, being comfortable in that skin is a prejudice which has no place in a MUSIC review.

After reading this review, the only conclusion I can reach is that you’d rather people stay in their box, making music which ties them to their past – or stop entirely. Music is made for all types of people and made by all types of people, not just 18 – 25 year olds. How boring would that musical landscape be? Perhaps that’s how you regard music in the Allen household, but not in mine.

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Luke Turner
Jun 10, 2009 12:27pm

Ross, we love music made by men and women of a certain age here. Mark E Smith, for instance, is a 50 year old man, who looks like a 60 year old man, and he likes it. Mark E Smith, though, continues to make challenging music, as do half the artists I love who are Costello's age or older (Nick Cave, Diamanda Galas, Wire, Marianne Faithfull, Pet Shop Boys, Einsturzende Neubauten, Sonic Youth etc and so on). I had the misfortune to see Elvis Costello at Glastonbury a few years ago, and it was like watching a copy of a singing Uncut magazine wandering around the stage. He's stuck, deeply conservative, trad rock, too comfortable not only in his skin but also for tedious toe tappers who mutter about how it was all better back in the past.

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Alex Saint
Jun 10, 2009 6:01pm

The point is not whether Elvis has made good records or not in the past 10 years, we can debate that. But this is a new album, and I thought this was supposed to be a review of that album. Instead it was a rant about Elvis' catalog. And when you bitch about Costello's body of work making a patently ignorant comment about how "king of america" is when he jumped the shark - well that only tells me that this reviewer does not understand much about music.

Elvis is prolific and he likes to try many things. Some times he succeeds, and some times he fails. And often there's a lot of mediocrity mixed in with some gems. I saw the Pet Shop Boys last year and I can't say the last time I saw a more tired show. I also can't say I've heard any Pet Shop Boys album that's worth actually owning. I bought the new Marianne Faithful as well, and while I like it okay, it's nothing to get me worked up about. Different strokes I suppose. I'm sorry if you went to see Elvis at Glastonbury and didn't enjoy it - I generally find festivals the worst place to see live music (unless it's a bluegrass festival). I saw Elvis play with Burt Bacharach in 1998 in London (excellent show), as was the show I caught on the "North" tour in Sicily (which is a gem of an album that seemed to elude serious discussion among the so-called "good music" lovers. Websites like this one only seem to like diverse music if what is being made fits some sort of model of what is "cool" at the moment. The Delivery Man and When I was Cruel albums and tours were less interesting for me because it was sort of the same old Elvis. But I'll go catch him with the Sugarcanes because I prefer these kinds of records more than the same old rock albums he puts out (though I have to say that even though Momofuku was very uneven, the first track "No Hiding Place" stands up against even his very best rock songs from the late 70s. I love it how people say they haven't bought any of his albums since the 1980s but still feel compelled to comment on how bad he has been since then. While he hasn't put out any single collection as brilliant as Imperial Bedroom, Get Happy!!, King of America, or Armed Forces in that time, you've missed out on many of his very best songs that have appeared interspersed throughout his catalog over the past 20 years. I can't imagine being an Elvis Costello fan and not being able to appreciate songs like "poor fractured atlas", "couldn't call it unexpected", "my little blue window", "still", "so like candy", "this house is empty now", "in the darkest place", "i want to vanish", "the other end of the telescope", "all this useless beauty", and well, i could go on, but I'm probably just listing songs from albums that many of you have never even listened to.

The new album is quite good by the way for those who are interested. So far there is only 1 track on it that has me wanting to skip ahead. How enduringly good it is, only time will tell.

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Ross McConnell
Jun 11, 2009 1:30am

In reply to Luke Turner:

"He's stuck, deeply conservative, trad rock, too comfortable not only in his skin but also for tedious toe tappers who mutter about how it was all better back in the past"...this sentence is structured like a bucket of shite. You started off making some sense and just gave-up!

However, I'm not here to stick up for everything Costello does. I am not one of the people you mention in the above random collection of words; I don't think I've ever "muttered" about how things were better in the past and I resent the implication that if you like E.C then you're automatically an old fart who doesn't have a clue.

The fact is, I detest people who midlessly cling to favourite bands of their teens and 20s, but one shouldn't dismiss them out of hand either.

I think what riles me about this review and various comments is how dismissive they are with nothing constructive or concrete to back it up. I like The Quietus. It's not too serious and it (usually) knows it's stuff. Don't take cheap shots at easy targets.

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Oct 28, 2009 8:59am

In reply to Alex Saint:

Alex, stop opening brackets and not closing them off. That said you make some good points. Though not about Pet Shop Boys- no albums worth owning?!

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Nov 12, 2013 8:37pm

Paul D
A lot of fair comment here on Costello moribound middle age,happens to a lot of artists.He makes the right noises but a lot of recent projects lack the passion of old,still King Of America was a cracking album in my opinion.

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Aug 14, 2014 3:05pm

Excellent review, alas-- back from when Quietus had gumption. Elvis lost of his quality control somewher in the late '80s and has NEVER got it back. Quietus I still have some hope for though oftentimes I'm unsure why.

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