The ways we listen to music have finally caught up to artists like Elvis Costello. Only in an era of shuffled playlists and Jack FM could a record as audaciously varied as "National Ransom" find a large audience. Of course, this is what Costello has always done. We often still view Costello's early '80s career in a narrow, New Wave frame, but he was a stylistic island-hopper from the beginning. "Get Happy!!" is straight soul, "Almost Blue" is utterly country, "Imperial Bedroom" is practically Tin Pan Alley. The only difference now is that he can switch styles from song to song instead of album to album, covering -- in this case -- a dozen on one CD.
But when your iPod's on shuffle, sometimes you want to skip some tracks. You will here, too, especially on the front end. "National Ransom" continues and greatly expands the range of Americana music explored on last year's "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane," which also was recorded with T Bone Burnett and his troupe, including mutable guitarist Marc Ribot. Each song is labeled with a time and place -- "Slow Drag With Josephine" is marked as "under the Napoleonic Code, 1921," "I Lost You" is "on the road to Cain's Ballroom, Tulsa, 2009," etc. The settings spin like a wheel of fortune; whatever it lands on, by God, Elvis & Co. will play music to match. The overall impression is very wink-wink, golly-I'm-clever. Sometimes the songs soar, but often they flap about helplessly in their own overly complex structures, like oil-covered birds.
Among the 16 songs, there's a decent album in about nine of them. His voice is spot-on, young as ever at age 56. His grimy human observations pointed as ever ("Deflowered young and ever since / she's tried to wash off his fingerprints / so every charlatan and prince / was made to feel inferior," from the well-built "Chruch Underground"). On "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" or "Slow Drag With Josephine," the mix of Joycean imagery and light, sepia-toned acoustic music are almost as prim as Gilbert & Sullivan. He only really rocks on the title track, with fuzzy guitar that snakes through the song, and the R&B riffs of "The Spell That You Cast." The desolate "Bullets for the New-Born King" is stunning in its beauty, but possibly largely because it features only two musicians and is programmed in the intermission point of a very fussy, busy record.