NATIONAL RANSOM: Was THIS The Album That Broke Elvis Costello’s Heart?
I’ve written about National Ransom before, and I began discussing it recently with Mikey Erg as part of a yet-to-be-released episode of 12 Hour Day with J.D. & Connor.
National Ransom came out in 2010, and while Costello hasn’t exactly gone into retirement, it is worth noting that he has not attempted a solo record in the five years since it came out. He has toured a lot, and there are a couple of fine collaborative projects that he was coaxed into doing– one with The Roots, who sort of willed their partnership into existence with Wise Up Ghost, and one with NR producer T Bone Burnett, who lured him with a box of unrecorded Bob Dylan lyrics to become part of The New Basement Tapes. And he has been writing new songs with Burt Bacharach for a Broadway stage musical for the past year or so. All good things.
But there is no indication that he is of a mind to make another “Elvis Costello” record anytime soon. And I think National Ransom is a big part of why that is the case, or at the very least it is a major symptom that indicates the reason why.
I think Costello would make a new album TOMORROW if he thought that there was a chance that people would buy it the way people flocked to make Dylan’s latest album of Sinatra standards into a #1 record. But I think he suspects that any new album he makes will be received the same way NR was when it came out: politely acknowledged by critics and fans, ignored by everybody else, and then almost immediately forgotten and erased from the cultural conversation.
Part of why I think this album broke his heart is that a few years’ earlier, he had been talking about never making any more albums before suddenly making two very good records very quickly– Momofuku and Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. The former happened because he recorded a guest appearance on a Jenny Lewis album which quite casually spiraled into him making an album of new songs of his own, and the latter was made over the course of a few days in Nashville with his old pal T Bone at the helm.
Momofuku was originally to be a vinyl-only release, and I have the feeling that Costello probably would have been happier if they hadn’t chickened out and made it available on CD and for download, since expanding it to those formats didn’t exactly lead to huge sales anyway. He has previously longed to have the 1995 album Kojak Variety released with zero promotion, to be “discovered” in the racks, a strategy which Warner Bros. refused to comply with. Since neither of these records became hits, it seems like they wouldn’t have been any worse off if they had obliged Costello his anti-commercial whims.
But Secret, Profane & Sugarcane was given almost the opposite treatment, and it was released on the Starbucks Hear Music label. Amazingly, this record actually became Costello’s highest charting debut since 1980, and it was purely as a result of being prominently displayed on Starbucks counters all across America.
It’s not hard to connect the dots between the success of Secret, Profane… and the existence of National Ransom. He went back into the studio with T Bone and the same musicians, adding The Imposters to the mix. But while the previous album had featured a lot of older songs and songs that had been writing for other projects, now Costello was newly inspired to write more than a double album’s worth of new material.
National Ransom isn’t Costello’s most perfect record, but it IS one of his most ambitious in a career that has been defined by an almost inexhaustible creative ambition. The final record contains 16 songs, with several more left over for an EP (and in the absence of a “deluxe” reissue, who knows how many outtakes exist?) Some of these are, by his own estimation, among the best he’s ever written. Some are just ramshackle fun.
What’s especially heartbreaking about this is that Costello had every reason to expect that this record would be well-received. He even commissioned cartoonist Tony Millionaire to follow up his Secret, Profane sleeve art with an even more eye-popping design for this one.
And yet… for reasons unknown, although this was released on the same Starbucks record label, the new album didn’t receive the same point-of-sale placement that the previous one had enjoyed, and the sales figures reflected it.
Even worse, the reviews were merely fine, with even some of the most positive ones seeming almost bored with the idea of “another Elvis Costello record.” It barely got a mention in the end-of-year “best of” lists, even ones in the UK music magazines that rank the year’s Top 50 and have plenty of room for good albums by older music legends like Dylan or Bowie or Joni Mitchell. It was an astonishingly weak reaction to one of Costello’s greatest records, and one that he went out of his way to really, truly promote, going on every TV show that would have him to perform songs from it. (He even went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, a show which generally does not feature musical guests, much to the delight of the politically conservative Costello superfan Joe Scarborough.)
What was the point of making records if an album like National Ransom could be so easily ignored?
Costello has a memoir coming out in late 2015 from Penguin Random House called Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. I imagine it will sell better than National Ransom, but I hope it also reframes Costello’s circumstances in a way that will allow him to one day consider making another record with the scope and ambition of that album, and I hope that it will in some small way lead the curious to seek out that 2010 record.
In my conversation with Mikey Erg, we talked about how we have each gone through periods where our focus on what Costello was doing has waned, and the admitted that National Ransom was one record that had sort of passed him by– he had listened to it when it came out, and then put it away and sort of forgot about it.
Upon continuing our ongoing Costello dialogue last night (after he appeared as a guest on my monthly “George Lucas Talk Show” at UCB Theatre East, where Mikey performed an encore by request where he opted to play Costello’s “Lip Service”), Mikey excitedly reported that, in the weeks since our first Costello talk, he had revisited National Ransom and it has now become one of his favorite albums.
I’m gonna go listen to it now, on vinyl!
But you, dear reader, can seek it out quite conveniently on Spotify, if you are curious.
With the impending release of Elvis Costello’s newest album, I thought I’d revisit his back catalog by grouping his albums in various ways and ranking them within that group. First up, Costello’s Country-tinged albums, which is a broad way to put it.
King of America (1986) - Costello’s first album collaboration with T-Bone Burnett not only features some great musicians, including members of Elvis Presley’s original band, but it also has some of the best songs of his career.
Almost Blue (1981) - The Attractions prove they are one of the best backing bands ever by following EC down a straight-up Country detour.
The Delivery Man (2004) - A Southern Gothic concept album filled with anger and the regret from the relationships that scar us. Great guests vocals from Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris add so much to the story it tells.
Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (2009) - “Hidden Shame,” the seed that spawned The Delivery Man gets a proper recording with the Sugarcanes, an excellent band of Country and Bluegrass musicians.
National Ransom (2010) - Costello’s last album has some great songs but it fails as an album on its own and feels like a collection of all the various genres EC has played with. It is still rewarding - “Jimmie Standing In The Rain,” “Stations Of The Cross” and “One Bell Ringing” are some of the best songs he’s ever written.
Third-Class ticket in his pocket Punching out the shadows underneath the sockets Tweed coat turned up against the fog
Slow coaches rolling o'er the moor Between the very memory And approaches of war
Stale bread curling on a luncheon counter Loose change lonely, not the right amount
Nobody wants to buy a counterfeited prairie lullaby in a colliery town A hip flask and fumbled skein with some stagedoor Josephine is all he’ll get now Eyes going in and out of focus Mild and bitter from tuberculosis
Forgotten man Indifferent nation Waiting on a platform at a Lancashire station Somebody’s calling you again The sky is falling Jimmie’s standing in the rain
Following the surprise success of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Costello recorded perhaps the closest thing to a “follow-up” record he’s ever attempted, returning to Nashville with T Bone Burnett and all members of The Sugarcanes. He even got the great Tony Millionaire to draw the cover again.
Of course, it wasn’t really a retread. In fact, the differences outweighed the similarities. For one thing, this album would be bigger in scope: nine days in Nashville compared to three, with two additional days in Los Angeles; The Imposters were added to the mix, along with Marc Ribot, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell; and this record, a double LP clocking in at over an hour, would be made up entirely of new songs, none of which were written for other projects like an unfinished opera or song cycle.
A double album of folk, rock, r&b and ballads, National Ransom is a Major Elvis Costello Album, possibly the most significant one of the decade. Only North even comes close to rivaling it.
And despite generally favorable reviews, it didn’t seem to make much of a critical impression, appearing on almost no year-end “Best Of” lists. (If Dylan had put out an album of similar ambition and quality, it would almost certainly have been at the top of all of them.)
More crucially, despite being released on the same label as the previous record, this time Costello inexplicably was denied the Starbucks counter display treatment, and the record quietly died on the charts.
It’s a shame, because while Secret, Profane & Sugarcane was a quietly satisfying piece of work, National Ransom was a bigger achievement, a record that could hold its own with his greatest albums. For it to be greeted with a collective shrug seemed to take the wind of Costello’s sails. Soon after, when he returned to the familiar refrain that he was through making records, it felt more defeated than when he had previously made this declaration. After all, if an album like this couldn’t get people excited again, what was the point of making another record?
But let’s not dwell on the negative: National Ransom is one of those Elvis Costello albums that people are still going to be discovering decades from now, at which point people will marvel that it wasn’t better appreciated in its time.
On the previous album, Costello had provided playfully-worded descriptions below the title of each song; here, he supplies a time and location, ranging from cryptic to revelatory.
The title track opens the album with a song that sounds like The Traveling Wilburys in a building on fire. Marc Ribot and Jerry Douglas are locked in a guitar battle with one in each ear, while Steve Nieve tellingly pounds out the riff from “You Belong To Me” on the Vox Continental. Costello’s multi-tracked harmony vocals howl in frustration at the prospect of the crooks getting away with it, again and again.
The album’s cover art seems to have the deepest connection to this song; for best results, buy the vinyl LP and examine the sleeve while listening to it.
Easily one of the best songs on the album, and maybe one of the best songs of Costello’s whole career; a snapshot of a cowboy singer in England in the 1930s, trying his best to be Jimmie Rodgers and falling short.
Although Jim Lauderdale’s close harmonies were a highlight of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, I have to admit I find it immensely satisfying to hear Costello return to doing his own multi-tracked vocals after a long period where he shied away from this recording technique. When combined with his confident falsetto, it’s even better.
Another gem, this time with a whistling solo by Costello, one that he was able to replicate in concert and on a variety of television appearances. This is one of a handful of songs that harken back to a kind of “old-fashioned” style of songwriting, but Costello manages to avoid seeming like he is dressing up in Old-Timey clothing or some such affectation.
A song that made its debut on the previous year’s Sugarcanes tour, this is the only track on the album to feature Imposters’ bass player Davey Faragher.
Costello’s use of The Imposters on this album is interesting: there is no single track featuring all three of them. Davey and Pete are on this one, while Pete and Steve are on five tracks together. Pete is on four tracks separately from either of them, and Steve is on one. They never appear as a single unit, but are instead used in various combinations with various members of The Sugarcanes and other guest players.
A cousin of “Stella Hurt,” this song tells a story of another girl singer with dreams of Show Business Glory, moving “to the sparkling coast from the blank interior.” It’s one of two songs on the album to employ a horn section, the other being:
Described as “a song about a séance held in 1919 as a family struggle with the loss of a soldier executed for desertion in the First World War” it actually sounds convincingly like a song that could’ve been written a century ago, without a hint of pastiche.
One of the finest pieces of songwriting on the album, this tender, delicate song of an assassin’s regrets is a great example of Costello’s gift for layering in specifics while still maintaining an air of mystery.
One can fashion a trilogy out of songs written over the course of this decade in which Costello writes about his life’s calling and what it means to him. “45”, “International Echo” and now this, the best of the three, inspired by a conversation with Doc Watson backstage at Merlefest in 2007
“When I was first introduced to Doc, he took off into a testimonial or homily about his life and work, the things his father had taught him and lessons taken from scripture. He may tell a lot of people these things but they rolled around my head for good while. I didn’t immediately decide that any of this should appear in a song. Then one day the song arrived, all in one piece, in just a matter minutes.
"Things that I had heard that day had become entangled with various old rhymes and notions; a dedication to the visible sign of invisible grace. At best, this is what we are striving for, accepting that we fail most of the time."
It’s an astonishing song with no real precedent I can identify within his body of work.
(Throw in "Radio Soul”&“Radio, Radio”and you have a pretty fascinating EP’s worth of songs about Costello’s relationship to music. There are probably a few others among the 500+ songs he’s written, but it’s a subject he has dealt with sparingly, only revisiting it when he has something specific to say.)
The date and location given for this song refer to the brutal killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent, unarmed man shot seven times in the head by London police who mistook him for a fugitive involved with the failed bombing attempts that occurred two weeks after the London Underground bombings of 2005.
“The song simply tries to summons up an atmosphere of dread in which a terrible misjudgment might occur. There are beautiful, soothing images right alongside those of a fate that might befall any innocent man or woman: torture; hearing your own voice deny your very name and finally, lamentation. “Bedlam” expresses the common bewilderment and helplessness of a refugee, a combat soldier, someone who has had a laurel of false heroism thrust upon their head and, now in this song, here’s an innocent man who cannot understand why he is mistaken for a threat. There simply isn’t some convenient moral on which to conclude.
"All mere songs can do is offer these received images in juxtaposition and you can make use of this arrangement of words and music as you wish. I don’t have any snappy slogans or violent solutions to propose but I think we all have a lot of questions."
Not every song on the album is as deep or heady; a few of them are simply Costello letting off some steam.
One of the most intriguing songs on the record, I actually sort of overlooked this one on first listen but have come to be fascinated by it over time. I am still trying to figure it out.
“He is a man who has been left by his lover for a more dangerous man and so, to compete with his rival, imagines himself the worst he can be, a gunrunner, a dissolute painter, a brigand after dark.
"Even in his wildest imaginings,he ends up in a defeated army, sitting in a locomotive yard without any boots.
”As to the music, this was the very last piece recorded in Nashville. The band had barely finished writing out their numbers charts when we hit “Record”. In truth, I finished harmonizing the final refrains, while the players were already at their music stands.
“This is the kind of high wire act that doesn’t always come off but on this occasion, everyone was simply listening to a story and responding. It is one of my favourite ensemble performances on the record.”
Within six months of its release, Costello was making references to “the recently deleted album, National Ransom.” After witnessing what could happen when the full force of the Starbucks record label was put to work to sell one of his records, it had to be galling to produce a record of this caliber to watch it die, quietly and quickly.
Despite putting himself out there to really plug the album, it was soon clear that all his efforts had made little impact on record sales. He would soon double down on his notion that he was now primarily a “live” musician rather than a recording artist, bringing back one of the most memorable concert gimmicks he had ever attempted.
It’s worth noting that, even as National Ransom seemed like it might, indeed, be the last chapter in Costello’s recording career, he made a second appearance on a late night television show where he seemed to get along quite well with the house band:
I take it from that we’re in a moment that we’ve been in before in many other circumstances, that people are all sharing the experience of song. We’re going over the edge of a cliff maybe here. I think the humanity in the characters, all the little struggles that are described in these songs, I always hope that we’ll take it out that really the best that we can find within ourselves in these times is not the appeal of fanaticism, intolerance - that’s the truth of it. That’s why I think songs are worth singing and worth hearing and being together. That’s why the record ends like it does, with ‘Voice in the Dark,’ which is a hopeful song. So there has to be something better within us than all of that. I’m looking for that, even the smallest bit of light in the picture in all of these songs. I’m trying to find some beauty in all of this, otherwise it would truly be intolerable. There wouldn’t be any reason for us to make any more records or sing any more songs.
Elvis Costello, explaining what he takes from National Ransom after listening to the finished product.