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.
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
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.
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.
I’m going to make this short and sweet because I typed up long response and accidently deleted it.
Reduce their funding. This means convincing European nations to stop paying ransoms, and trying to secure the hostages ISIS has taken. Further move the Iraqi military to secure Iraqi banks. ISIS nabbed nearly $400 million from Mosul banks alone.
Identify and assassinate ISIS leadership. Not just Al-Baghdadi, but the regional commanders and anyone significant. Do this through any means necessary short of a full scale invasion. That means drones, kill teams, snipers, anything.
Then terrorize the terrorists. I’m talking shit like Project Eldest Son. Intercept and sabotage weapons shipments, make them doubt their equipment. Do shit like this! Send in kill teams in the night. Conduct PsyOps. Drop fuckin packs of ace of spades (The Death Card) over ISIS camps. Pretty much demoralize their will to fight. Conduct a guerilla war against ISIS.
A full invasion would lead to another drawn out war where the enemy attempts to wear us down. Let’s flip the tables and wear them down. Be that shit that goes fucking bump in the night. Any religious zealot who says they don’t feel fear hasn’t seen their buddy explode and not know where it came from.