As he strives to become modern pop's Renaissance man, one has to approach Elvis Costello albums with care, even trepidation, so diverse are they in style and aptitude. Thankfully, The Delivery Man captures him at the point of his creative cycle that involves The Attractions - or as the updated version is known, The Imposters - rather than some foray into jazz, opera, dance, or any of the other tangents that secure fawning coverage in the Sunday broadsheets but little affection among fans. As such, it's probably best regarded as the follow-up to 2002's When I Was Cruel, rather than last year's painful torch-song collection North.
As ever, there's a substantial complement of reproach in these 14 songs, as couples fall out and fall apart, or wonder what they've let themselves in for. "I wish I could be a little more like a saint is/ Forgiving those who trespass against us," he reflects, over the rough-hewn Tom Waits-style R&B of "Needle Time". But it's not his natural character to be so forgiving, so his protagonists generally get short-ish shrift, which is about what they deserve. His misanthropy is probably best summed up in "Monkey to Man", a gloss on Dave Bartholomew's trenchant comic song "The Monkey Speaks Its Mind": "It's been headed this way since the world began," laments the monkey of mankind's globe-ravaging ways, "When a vicious creature took the jump from monkey to man." It's presented as a sort of Tex-Mex R&B groove in the Doug Sahm style, with Steve Nieve doing a sharp impression of Augie Meyer's distinctive organ style.
Elsewhere, Nieve is on top form interjecting little quotes from Bernstein's "America" into the opening "Button My Lip", a bubbling jazz gumbo whose absurd time-signature is pumped along calmly by Davey Farragher's sinuous double bass and Pete Thomas's commanding drums. "Bedlam", an allegorical number about Bush's Crusade, has a similarly bustling manner, while elsewhere a crepuscular melancholy tone hangs like fog around the ponderous soul ballad "Either Side of the Same Town".
As always, Costello dissects his characters with the steady scalpel of an anatomist, peeling back the veneer of respectability to bare the cruelties and incompetences that wreck our best intentions. The results can be quite startling, as in "She's Pulling out the Pin", in which the protagonist "... slipping off the hook/ Unbuttoning her dress/ There's just enough to make some man a mess" is depicted as a suicide bomber set to detonate one's emotions. It's typical of a mature, accomplished work that successfully accommodates Costello's discontents and trepidations within the comforting security of roots-based rock'n'roll.
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