Already having established his midcareer reputation as a restless experimenter, Elvis Costello continues his journey down the back roads of America's musical styles on National Ransom. His latest is purposefully all over the map, covering Memphis, New Orleans, West Texas, Hollywood, the Appalachian hills and Tin Pan Alley.
The swings between conventional rock, crooner jazz and several shades of Americana might seem messy at first, but Costello's sonic inclusiveness is what gives National Ransom its impact.
Costello certainly put the right team in place for such a genre-jumping effort. National Ransom has producer T Bone Burnett at the helm and features guests like Buddy Miller, Marc Ribot and Leon Russell. It's mostly the same cast as last year's Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, which stuck to straightforward country/bluegrass music with merely decent results. But by running in the opposite direction, National Ransom finds strengths in its myriad sounds.
The music builds well into the album's thematic commentary on the contradictions guiding modern America: the economic ransom—disguised as patriotism—being paid by the middle class to the wealthy, and the populist surge that's hastening the country's oligarchical slide.
Highlights are the opening title track, the noir-jazz of "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," the gentle acoustic "Bullets for the New-Born King," country rave-up "I Lost You" and "The Spell That You Cast," which is classic Costello.
National Ransom's 16 songs stretch past an hour, and not everything works, but it's a bold and thorough effort from a legend not content to repeat himself.