Elvis Costello's never been one to shrink from a challenge.
And on his new album, "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane," he's taken on a big one, a song cycle of sorts incorporating themes that wind like the muddy Mississippi through the cultural legacy of the American South and the tragic secrets and varied stripes of love -- obsessive, unrequited and misfired.
Some songs can be as straightforward as classic country. Costello wrote with country queen Loretta Lynn "I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came," a dark scenario of a faithless man losing his grip on the woman he sinned for. Others are as art-song sophisticated as "She Was No Good," inspired by 19th century European singing star Jenny Lind's tour of the U.S.
Mystery abounds in oblique stories such as "Hidden Shame," which might have remained more effectively mysterious without the concluding details of a long-kept secret. "Red Cotton" is more powerful, a theatrically dramatic example of the price of human greed.
The highlights are "Sulphur to Sugarcane," the kind of bawdy blues Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith would have loved, and "The Crooked Line," a beautiful plea that Costello describes as "the only song I've ever written about fidelity that is without irony."
With considerable contributions from producer T-Bone Burnett and star string players out of Nashville (where the collection was recorded), including fiddler Stuart Duncan, dobra ace Jerry Douglas, mandolinist Mike Compton and upright bassist Dennis Crouch, Costello instills much of this outing a fitting old-timey feel.
"Secret, Profane & Sugarcane"