JORGE FARAH: National Ransom is the Elvis Costello album that time forgot. Coming off of the unlikely (and caffeine-boosted) commercial success of its bluegrass-tinged predecessor Secret Prophane and Sugarcane, this was to be his victory lap—the album that cemented his comeback as a former elder statesman of rock, now rebranded with muted greens and earthy browns, placed alongside the Randy Newmans and Paul Simons of the world. He once again teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett, whose musical direction and ear for acoustic instrumentation made SP&S the best-sounding album Elvis has probably ever released. And he combined the talents of his two most recent backing bands: versatile rockn’roll powerhouses The Imposters and string-band stalwarts The Sugarcanes (who were actually not a band, per se, but sort of became one during the previous album’s promotional tour), as well as frequent collaborator Marc Ribot and the legendary Leon Russell. The songs were largely catchy and accessible, the marketing was aggressive, the promotional tour was arduous. For a while there it felt like you couldn’t turn on the television without seeing Elvis and his merry band of traveling musicians performing some jaunty number off the album—usually “Slow Drag With Josephine”. It seemed like they had it in the bag.
And then: nothing. All the hoopla surrounding the album’s release didn’t translate to actual sales. This wasn’t the album that would rescue Elvis from boat shows and state fairs. National Ransom did typical late-period Costello numbers, quickly sank down the charts, and had next to no cultural penetration. The critics gave it the coldest of cold shoulders, with only a handful even bothering to put it in year-end retrospectives. It was a truly disheartening thing to witness, especially because—this isn’t hyperbole here, but my actual, real opinion—National Ransom is one of Elvis’s all-time greatest accomplishments. It is an absolute triumph of an album, brimming with creativity and wit and gorgeous melodies atop some of the breeziest and most memorable music in his entire career. While there is clearly a great deal of thought put into the compositions in National Ransom—both musically and lyrically—the performances sound easy and effortless. Placid. Like the hazy aftermath of a backyard BBQ on a summer day. Which is quite a thing to say about an album that features betrayal, tuberculosis and murder so prominently in its lyrics.
Which brings is to this weeks’ featured song: “You Hung the Moon”, the mournful torch song that serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece. This is one of Elvis’s most fully-realized studio recordings; everything feels completely on point, from the rich and very slightly reverby timbre of the guitar to the deliberately muted, understated orchestration to Elvis’s assured vocal, full-bodied and resonant, coming deep from within his diaphragm like the best performances in North. Everything about this recording just jells together beautifully, and small touches (such as the barely-there piano in the verses) are given enough space in the mix to contribute to the harmonic palate. And the song is a fantastic piece of writing; I love the angry New Wave thing, but I think right now my ideal Elvis Costello album would be made up entirely of songs where he explores this side of his musical identity. National Ransom was almost that; as fun as tracks like “My Lovely Jezebel” and “The Spell That You Cast” are, the strongest songs in this album are the ones that find Elvis in “historical songwriter” mode, songs like “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” and “A Voice in the Dark” that harken back to the turn of the century.
On a personal and unabashedly braggy note, I was lucky enough to be among 25 fans selected to receive a set of two 78s containing selections from National Ransom. One of the discs has “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” on one side and “You Hung the Moon” on the other. I’ve played it exactly once, and have kept it in proud display on my living room wall. The 78 is the perfect format for a song like this—one that sounds simultaneously vital and plucked straight out of the annals of history.
KEVIN DAVIS: Of course I hope it isn’t, but if National Ransom ends up being EC’s final solo album, it will be hard to feel like he walked offstage having left much unsaid. The album neatly rounds up a host of historical styles paid tribute to by Elvis over the years (though not all of them – the man’s palette is broad) and gathers them together into this ornately composed scrapbook of sepia-toned Americana, a haul of dusty treasures from one layer deeper down the hole that produced Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. And while I agree that National Ransom is pretty clearly the superior record, I’m not surprised it fared poorer with the Starbucks crowd; Secret, while nonetheless sturdy in its joints and rich in heart, has a bright, accessible surface, where Ransom comes across as dusty, sprawling and somewhat esoteric, more given to eccentric rambles (see Mark Ribot’s frantic soloing on the title track) and indebted to a wider range of styles of American music, some less destined for the kind of contemporary appeal that it’s easy to hear in a jaunty bluegrass number like, say, “Sulphur to Sugarcane.”
I don’t think Elvis has written many songs better than “You Hung the Moon,” and coming from a bigger-than-average fan of EC’s standard style of composition, that’s saying something. The guitar rock tirades may not come as effortlessly as they once did, but the care and delicacy in the craft of a ballad like this is something Elvis has only gotten better at with age – from “Almost Blue” to Painted From Memory to North to this song and several others on National Ransom, Elvis has slowly come to master this style of deeply melodic, highly chord-sensitive songwriting. Not that the tempo would give it away, but his chording and melodic accompaniment here is decidedly beboppish – a tireless sequence of changes, with the harmonically complex chords working overtime to accommodate the tune, particularly as it goes to off-kilter places. The callback is to Dixieland – again, not because of the tempo, but because of the way elements both from country-and-western and big band jazz fuse, revealing how so many strands of American music can ultimately all be traced back to the same few origins.
Since Jorge didn’t mention much about the lyrics, I’ll just add that I find them poetic in a manner that eludes all but the finest songwriters, in a way that sacrifices none of Costello’s loquacious wordplay while still fitting seamlessly into the template he’s drawing from. Thematically, it’s a cliché with a twist: Soldier’s significant other watches a homecoming parade only to find that the object of her affections isn’t in it, yet later we learn that he may not have been killed in action, but for being a coward (“we deal with deserters like this”). This doesn’t change the core emotion of the song – which is the inevitable emptiness one feels in the face of a great loss – but it adds a weird complexity to the song’s peripheral emotions, infusing it enough specificity to keep it from being simply a more eloquent version of one of those country songs where an army girlfriend stands there nobly saluting a flag-draped coffin, or any such manufactured version of natural pride. Yet though the circumstances may be different, the grieving is the same: “The shore is a parchment/The sea has no tide/Since he was taken/From my side.” The rest of the story barely matters.