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Elvis Costello

The Delivery Man (Lost Highway)
il Sogno (Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft)

"In a certain light he looked like Elvis," croons the former Declan MacManus with consummate irony on the title track to his new disc. The Delivery Man is easily the most abrasively rocking thing Costello has released since 1986's Blood and Chocolate. By the same token, it's also the most country-and-roots-derived record he's made since King of America, which also came out in '86. But the fact that this rough-hewn back-to-the-garage-type album has been released simultaneously with il Sogno, Costello's first full-length orchestral work, should bewilder nobody.

After all, this is the guy who spent the '80s building himself a niche so wide that he could virtually disappear into any corner of it at will. Between his harsh early "new wave" albums, breezy radio hits like "Everyday I Write the Book," a Nashville covers record, major production credits for the likes of the Pogues, the Specials and Squeeze, and a heavily hyped songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney, by the dawn of the '90s Costello could pretty much write his own ticket, and that's exactly what he's been doing ever since.

For all the man's various musical dalliances, he's still best at rocking, and it's good to hear him doing it again. On "Button My Lip," the renowned motormouth wields that brutal head cold of a voice like a cudgel. Later, he and Lucinda Williams go toe-to-toe on "There's a Story in Your Voice," and you can practically hear them trying to blow each other out of the studio with sheer emotive lungpower. Elsewhere, the singer allows himself to indulge his Gram Parsons fetish in a series of three duets with Emmylou Harris, including a stripped-down retooling of his Oscar-nominated "Scarlet Tide" from Cold Mountain(the film version was sung by Allison Krauss).

In blatant, deliberate contrast, il Sogno, which was commissioned by an Italian ballet company, is polished and stately but far from somber, and Costello's feisty personality shows through despite the lack of lyrics and vocals. Melodically strong and kinetic, the piece moves confidently through as many different moods and styles as Costello can fit in, from nods to Debussy and big-band jazz to showtunes (although I could have done without the extended Chorus Line vamp in "Oberon and Titania"). Too restless to function as background wallpaper but too conventional to be mistaken for "difficult" modern art music, il Sogno above all wants to be heard, perhaps making it an apt analogy for its composer's overreaching, all-embracing almost three-decade career. -- Scott Faingold

 
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