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.