Having made albums for more than twenty-five years, Elvis Costello has more than proven his skills. And though his career has boasted some of the best rock of the past generation, such a widespread chronology has also proven his weaknesses. His experiments with different genres have had mixed results: misplaced attempts at honky tonk; an orchestral composition, Il Sogno, released simultaneously with this album; and some strange collaborations sum up the more forgettable albums of his catalog. But The Delivery Man, Costello’s country and Southern rock experiment, is not one of those albums.
Instead, his twenty-first proper album illuminates a talent Costello basically already had. Earlier efforts (especially Almost Blue) were hugely informed by the old country sound that surfaces on The Delivery Man, and his earliest records proved he was a scholar of the blues. Costello again looks with reverence upon these styles, creating a throwback to Southern music’s roots rather than boasting a more modern sound.
The Delivery Man‘s most dominant aspect, however, is the plot, left in pieces for the final product. Originally somewhat of a concept album, the story followed Abel (the delivery man the title speaks of) and his various affairs with local women. But with many songs left out and the remaining tracks assembled in no plot order, what’s left is a series of allusions to the characters’ violence and promiscuity that almost paints a darker picture than a cohesive story might have.
“Bedlam,” disguised as a pumped-up rock song, is really one of the girls’ laments from prison, incarcerated for a reason we don’t know. This leads into the title track — easily one of the album’s strongest — which introduces each character individually. With the album already half over, it offers little clarity. But the ambiguity only adds to the foreboding tone of the album; even with Costello’s lyrical skill, the crimes left to the imagination are probably far greater than those he may have had in mind.
And the album fares better musically with the tracks arranged as they are. For an album that’s uncharacteristically heavy on slow-burners and pedal-steel driven country tracks, the sequence is about as perfect as it could be. The up-tempo rockers that spread out these ballads — namely “Needle Time” and “Bedlam” — are the standouts, but The Delivery Man boasts some of Costello’s best down-tempo work.
“The Delivery Man” and “Country Darkness” are especially moving, each with a meticulously crafted melody and vaguely evocative lyrics about the longing of the female characters: Geraldine, Vivien and Ivy. The gorgeous “The Scarlet Tide,” which appeared on the Cold Mountain soundtrack with Alison Krauss’s vocals, closes the album. It’s sung in graceful harmony by Costello and Emmylou Harris, who appears on two other tracks. Standing alone, many tracks are of minimal quality for Elvis Costello (“Either Side of the Same Town” is especially forgettable), but the album as a whole is cohesive enough to overshadow his missteps and barely make the cut as classic Costello.