On Second Thought
Elvis Costello - Almost Blue






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

It was apparent from the beginning of his career that Elvis Costello did not just make music but that he was a music lover himself. My Aim Is True paid tribute to many artists and musical styles and with Get Happy!! and Trust those homages were becoming more frequent. Costello’s demonstration of his fandom culminated on Almost Blue, which consists entirely of country covers ranging from Hank Williams to Gram Parsons, as recorded by famed Nashville producer Billy Sherrill.

One of the biggest complaints critics and listeners have with cover albums, especially albums that touch on such sacred material as Hank Williams, is the artist’s refusal to tinker with the song, and instead deliver a second-rate carbon copy of the original. It seems as though Costello may have found something new in the material when his fast, rocking version of “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)” begins. The adaptation is by no means perfect, but as a fan it’s nice to hear Costello’s take on the song. However, when “Sweet Dreams” starts, the hope that Costello has created an original, vital album begins to fade. It’s a great song, no doubt, and Costello’s version is pleasant enough but if I want to hear “Sweet Dreams” in this style, I’ll spin Patsy Cline. These suspicions are confirmed on the rest of side A, in which Costello rehashes Loretta Lynn, Parsons, Haggard and George Jones. “A Good Year For The Roses” opens side two and highlights another of the album’s flaws- Costello’s song choices are boring. You could find versions of most of these songs on a number of country albums. Billy Sherrill had the same problem when he was producing, and quickly got bored. Country fans weren’t interested in a British rock n’ roller’s interpretation of country songs, and Costello fans weren’t interested in country.

One of the nicer aspects of the album is Costello’s mix of ballads and honky-tonk numbers. It’s nice to see the two styles juxtaposed when Costello puts the faster Big Joe Turner song “Hush Hush” with the much slower “Too Far Gone.” Costello also finishes the album on a good note with “How Much I’ve Lied”; Steve Nieve’s piano-organ is given the showcase it needs and Costello gives the most heartfelt and engaging performance on the album for one of the better Gram Parsons tunes.

Personally, I quite enjoy this album, but it’s not for everybody. I’m a sucker for both Costello and country music and sometimes it’s nice to hear the two together. However, the album is a rather pointless entry in the Costello catalog. It is, in essence, a self-indulgent vanity project-there’s no real market for the record and nothing to really offer most listeners. While the album thematically tackles much of what Costello was going through at the time (and many country clichés), curing heartache with booze, somehow Costello doesn’t sound convincing. He may have been feeling the emotions he was singing about, but that doesn’t come across to the listener. What makes Costello so great is the originality he brought musically and verbally to rock and pop. He should have left the interpretations to somebody else.


By: Colin Beckett
Published on: 2003-09-01
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