Elvis Costello has worn willful eclecticism as a badge of honor for so long that his decision to retain the same essential support and sound for 2010’s National Ransom as he did for its 2009 predecessor Secret, Profane & Sugarcane means something. Building upon a foundation instead of beginning another journey suggests that he knows he has a fruitful collaboration with producer T-Bone Burnett and a good band with the Sugarcanes, who are now melded with the Imposters to give this Americana -- equal parts roots-rock, country, and pre-war balladry -- some serious kick. Secret, Profane and National Ransom share some superficial sonic characteristics, but the former played as a clearinghouse of odds and ends, while National Ransom is a purposeful album, its themes elegantly meshing together and carrying considerable momentum. Costello deliberately stays in familiar territory, often recalling his first Burnett-produced record, King of America, but he’s not churning out familiar songs -- complacency is anathema to him, of course -- he’s using the familiar sounds to provide context for the present. In a conceit that’s a shade too clever, he’s presented a year where each song takes place, but that’s a bit of misdirection, too, because modern-day tales sound ancient and vice-versa, not unlike Dylan's latter-day albums. Costello shares a similar love of Tin Pan Alley songcraft as Dylan, but he favors bluegrass to blues and betrays a little bit of artful affectation when he writes a ‘20s shuffle like “A Slow Drag with Josephine” or a ballad like “You Hung the Moon,” but that’s part of his charm: a Costello album without such punning tricks is a bit of a drag. And while National Ransom doesn’t rage like This Year's Model, it does tap into that same sense of rage on its title track, and Costello gives guitarist Marc Ribot plenty of room to strangle out notes, giving this a far less stuffy feel than Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Ribot’s manic fretwork ties this to Costello’s dense turn-of-the-‘90s albums for Warner, so the album winds up with trace echoes of all eras of Costello, but that’s only a reflection of how National Ransom is a masterwork in the traditional sense: he’s summoned all his skills to deliver an album that summarizes his world view.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine