A cynic could rightly view this re-teaming of Elvis Costello with producer T-Bone Burnett among a rootsy musical palette as an attempt to mine whatever commercial and Grammy gold is left after Robert Plant and Alison Krauss successfully teamed up with Burnett on Raising Sand. Joined by bluegrass/Nashville session elite including Jerry Douglas, Dennis Crouch, Stuart Duncan, Mike Compton and Jeff Taylor plus Jim Lauderdale and Emmylou Harris adding vocals, the instrumentation gives disciplined back up to the main thrust of the material — Costello’s vocals and rhythm guitar. Only on Hidden Shame does the group of players have the shackles loosened as they push the track forward with the energy of a joyous front porch hootenanny.
But the Englishman has taken a musical holiday in Music City prior to this endeavor. From collaborating with George Jones in 1979 and appearing in an HBO special with the country legend to releasing an album of country covers, Almost Blue, writing songs specifically for Johnny Cash and a taking part in duet with Harris, he has found the country genre to be a comfortable place. Hell, his latest includes ‘I Felt the Chill,’ written with some ‘newcomer’ named Loretta Lynn. (Hope she has the pipes to make it on Nashville Idol!). You can sense her contribution through the songs bitter weariness laced throughout the lyrics.
Like the albums opening track, Down Among the Wine and Spirits, Costello traipses among more traditional country rhythms. But, its not as if he totally wraps himself in the proceedings without letting his old self rise again. Complicated Shadows and My All Time Doll fall closer to the darker territory Costello encompasses on his rock records as well as sounding like unused tracks from 1989s Spike, his last effort with Burnett. Even without his previous associations with country artists, its not surprising to find the elements work in Costello’s favor. Other than his album with the Brodsky Quartet, he never forgets the importance of a strong melody. That works in his favor no matter what the format, and it certainly does here. Comparing the present with the past, Hidden Mirror moves with the melodic grace the singer/songwriter attempted (and failed) when he recorded with Brodsky.
Some artists seem to have only a certain amount of output within them. The lack of worthwhile material doesnt stop them from releasing albums. Its just that they pale in comparison to earlier glories. For Costello, his prowess remains untapped. According to the press info, a portion of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is based on The Secret Songs, Costello’s unfinished commission for the Royal Danish Opera about the life of author Hans Christian Andersen. Adapted for this record, the songs are not diminished by their inclusion. Theyre merely part of his ever-growing catalogue, one that astounds in its depth and ongoing quality.