The artwork on Elvis Costello’s new album cover prepares the listener for songs packing political punch, but the record delivers no such thing.
The title track, “National Ransom,” opens the album with a satirical glance at the current financial crisis (the album art features a wolf dressed for the gilded age carrying a bag of flaming cash), and Costello seems to have fun with it. This, and nearly every song on the album, is an enjoyable throwback track.
Many of the tracks would sound at home on a cabaret stage during the ‘20s. Other songs sound as if Costello wrote them to play in a prototypical Western saloon. Those feelings aren’t surprising considering the album was produced by T. Bone Burnett, best known for his work on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack and other old-timey albums.
Costello also brings in some country guest stars to add to the effect. Vince Gill contributes, and piano-man Leon Russell (fresh off his bout with Elton John) plays on “My Lovely Jezebel.” Burnett himself plays in “Jezebel” and “All These Strangers.”
The instruments lend to each song’s attitude as well. Light guitar and piano give a cowboy feel to “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” and a saxophone underscores its bluesy feeling without pushing it over the top. A jangling piano, slow bass line and comical violin produce the cabaret atmosphere. The guitar in “National Ransom” howls like the wolf on the album cover.
In one of the few songs in which Costello delves into the modern era, “One Bell Ringing,” he keeps it slow and simple, using production tricks to make his guitar chords echo the song’s more modern approach.
No offense to his longing to shuffle things around, but Costello excels at the turn-of-the-century sound, and there’s no harm in sticking to it.