Music Review: Elvis Costello's Secret, Profane and Sugarcane

by Rick Rockwell

For years, those of us who are fans of Elvis Costello* have wondered what would happen if our singer-songwriter idol would just slow down. What would happen if he could just focus on a project and craft it perfectly? Would he produce another classic like his work with The Attractions? Something close to Armed Forces?

Well, those are outsized expectations. Costello’s latest, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, his 35th studio album (counting collaborations and U.K.-only releases) seems like just another of his annual releases: solid and workmanlike but nothing that burns the house down. That hasn’t happened for a Costello release in more than 20 years. Last year’s Momofuku with The Imposters, an attempt to get back to his punk/new wave roots was another good but not great record. So Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is no surprise.

Besides, Costello has his new family with jazz singer Diana Krall, including his two-year-old twins, his talk show on the Sundance Channel (Spectacle, which is mostly a bore), his commercials, his film cameos and his touring schedule. Is it any wonder his albums sound more like side projects rather than his central focus?

Secret, Profane and Sugarcane finds Costello working with T-Bone Burnett, the former sideman for Bob Dylan (The Rolling Thunder Revue) who has become one of the preeminent music producers of our time. Burnett** was the force behind Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand, which took home album of the year honors at this year’s Grammys. Burnett last teamed with Costello on 1989’s Spike. But this time out, Burnett seems more firmly at the rudder. The sound is more of the rootsy country and folk variety that Burnett mastered with his soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou, an album that has gone platinum eight times over in the U.S. and was the Grammy-winning album of the year in 2002. Costello hasn’t gone this far country since 1981’s Almost Blue.

And like that record, this is an interesting experiment but far from perfectly crafted. This is not another Raising Sand. Although, Burnett does pair Emmylou Harris with Costello on “The Crooked Line,” to get some of that same feeling (Burnett also co-wrote that number with Costello along with “Sulphur to Sugarcane”). Harris and Costello together throughout this release would have been a dream, as their only number together is one of the album’s best tracks. Another gem is something you’ll only find on the electronic bonus-track version of the album: a zydeco version of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” More of this type of experimentation would have made Secret, Profane and Sugarcane essential Costello.

Burnett gives the project his best shot, assembling a strong group of bluegrass musicians as a backing band and pushing Costello into other interesting musical places. (Costello’s collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint and opera star Anne Sofie von Otter all show Costello is willing to experiment in various musical forms, and usually with good results. But often these projects play more as larks rather than serious fare.) On this record Costello includes a song he co-wrote with Loretta Lynn (“I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came”) along with acoustic covers of his own material, both “Complicated Shadows” and “Hidden Shame” (originally penned especially for Johnny Cash to cover). But Costello and Burnett recorded the album over just a three-day span in Nashville, and at times it has a dashed off quality.

Given the musicianship of this assembled crew, the end result is Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is a good record. Pleasant. This is worth cueing up while reading. But Costello’s music was once about motivating a generation or at least moving people to get up to dance. And Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is a reminder that those days are gone. Costello pays that no mind. In the lyric for “Dirty Rotten Shame,” Costello sings: “I recall the good old days / But thankfully, they’re gone.” Still, some of us think that’s a shame.

*Elvis Costello is the stage name of Declan MacManus.

**T-Bone's full name is Joseph Henry "T-Bone" Burnett.

(For more on Elvis Costello, please see: "Elvis Costello: A Retrospective.")

(The promotional photo of Elvis Costello is from Lost Highway Records. Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes will begin their world tour in Red Bank, NJ on June 9. To see Elvis Costello perform an abbreviated version of "Sulphur to Sugarcane," please check the video below.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

Well phrased. In fact, it doesn't have to be Armed Forces. I'd settle for Imperial Bedroom.

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