Elvis Costello goes bluegrass-that's the short take on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. But this is not a novelty record. Working with über-producer, T Bone Burnett, Costello (real name Declan Patrick McManus) has produced a work that simply extends the reach of his 30-year career.
Costello has long experimented with diverse genres, many far afield from the New Wave rock of his origins. In the past two decades, Costello has recorded classic pop songs, taken a commission for an opera, and composed the score for a ballet. At the same time he has recorded albums of gut-bucket blues (The Delivery Man) and New Orleans jazz (The River in Reverse).
In that context, an acoustic project backed by top Nashville session players makes sense. And here Dobro and fiddle seem like the perfect instruments to accent and counterpoint his famously quirky melodies while an accordion takes the place of the pumping organ on his rock productions.
A couple of themes run through the songs on this album, each appropriate to the old-time serenity of the musical setting. One cluster, taken from an uncompleted opera project, focuses on singer Jenny Lind and her tour of America in 1850 promoted by P. T. Barnum. Especially evocative is "Red Cotton," in which Barnum reflects on his accomplishments but keeps being interrupted by thoughts of slave ships and civil war.
The album ends with two songs dedicated to monogamous fidelity, new territory for the thrice-married McManus. On "The Crooked Line," co-written with Burnett, the chorus has the singer "contemplating how I'll find you waiting at the very end of this crooked line" to a tune from the Baptist hymnal, backed by Cajun accordion. And that statement is re-enforced by the Bing Crosby waltz, "Changing Partners," that ends the album with the refrain, "Oh, my darling, I will never change partners again."