Much like fellow Brit David Bowie, Elvis Costello has spent much of his career trying on and casting off different musical personas. Recent years have found Costello being a classical music dilettante, getting his jazz jones on, and delving into New Orleans R&B alongside Big Easy heavyweight Allen Toussaint. And while the fiftysomething singer-songwriter broke into the music industry with a punk-size chip on his shoulder, country music has always been a special love of his dating back to his late-1970s duet with George Jones. For this return trip back to the twangy side of the pool, Costello reunites with King of America producer and erstwhile Coward Brother T-Bone Burnett. Additionally, the Attractions get swapped out for the Sugarcanes, whose members include notable Nashville sidemen Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and Jim Lauderdale.
Unfortunately, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane ends up being a repository for a far-flung clutch of songs. Cuts ranging from remnants of an unfinished Hans Christian Andersen/Jenny Lind opera to an unlikely Bing Crosby cover and some dusted-off Costello reworkings make for a stitched-together project that lacks spark. Songs like "I Felt the Chill," an old-timey waltz co-penned with Loretta Lynn, and "Sulphur to Sugarcane," a nod-and-wink shuffle that's a Burnett co-write, give this collection some personality. But when Costello delves into those opera songs — "She Was No Good," "Red Cotton," "How Deep is the Red?," "She Handed Me a Mirror" — the album's flow gets stilted amid a morass of dobro, squeezebox, and mandolin. Not even "Hidden Shame," a snappy outtake from his 2004 Southern song cycle The Delivery Man, is enough to make this latest dalliance with country music as compelling to the ear as it might look on paper.(Hear Music)
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