Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: The Delivery Man

"I am the mighty and magnificent" Costello howls in the opening track to yet another fantastic album, 2004's The Delivery Man.

The Imposters are back in probably one of their finest album performance, jumping back and forth from dirty Southern rock to old school country. I cannot recommend this album enough.

"Button My Lip" kicks off this collection of songs, an intentional concept album as opposed to the gorgeous accidental melodrama of North, with an unrelenting jam session that combines elements of "America" from West Side Story and feedback heavy arrangement. Though it's the heaviest song on the album, it also let's you know that you are in for a surprise.

Next is the first of the album's alluring country ballads and the first song that specifically deals with the somewhat convoluted story behind the album. The concept revolves around three women whose lives are impacted by a man with a hidden past. The album's liner notes lists the names of the women - Geraldine, Vivian and Ivy - and the man, Abel, along their respective tracks but stops short of laying out the story for listeners.

It also doesn't help that one of the songs that sparked this Southern tale is not included in the album. Costello wrote "Hidden Shame" around 1989 after reading a newspaper story about man facing a charge who had done a much worse and undiscovered deed when he was a child. The song, recorded by Johnny Cash, would later officially appear in Costello's 2009 album Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane.

Abel seems to be the child, now an adult, who returns as a delivery man to an isolated town touched by a major conflict (Possibly a war, since the album was recorded as the Iraq War marked its first year) and becomes an important figure in the lives of the three women.

Geraldine, her daughter Ivy and Abel figure in the lovely "Country Darkness." Lucinda Williams' weathered voice brings Vivian's stormy character to life in "There's A Story In Your Voice." Emmylou Harris gives Geraldine a fragile tone in the heart rending "Hear Shaped Bruise." And the whole story comes together in the bluesy title-track. "In a certain light he looked like Elvis/In a certain way he feels like Jesus."

All those songs are great but the album adds a five more songs unrelated to the central story though they share the same themes.
Geraldine is a widow because her husband died in a war, a theme that appears in the blistering "Bedlam." Pete Thomas' drums go haywire as Costello mixes the story of Jesus' birth and with the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from Iraq, both self-perpetuating myths.

One of the most beautiful songs in the album, the Oscar-nominated "Scarlet Tide," was written for a film about the Civil War but perfectly fits at the end of this album. Costello, accompanied by an ukulele and Emmylou Harris' fine vocals, sings about the price of war and the people who willingly gamble with it:

Man goes beyond his own decision
Gets caught up in the mechanism
Of swindlers who act like kings
And brokers who break everything
I think I like every song on this album and have fond memories of driving around blasting the "Needle Time" and "Monkey to Man" on my car when I got the album. The latter is a hilarious sequel to Dave Bartholomew's song "The Monkey," in which they can't believe that the cruelty of man evolved from a monkey.

Still, there is one song that I must always play twice, "Either Side Of The Same Town." A perfect torch song, this time between a man and his former lover and the unbearable sense that they might run into each other again when certain feelings remain in place. This is what Costello does best, he can take the sorrow we've all experienced at one time or another and makes it worth reliving again and again. 

Classics: Country Darkness, Either Side Of The Same Town, Bedlam, Monkey To Man, Heart Shaped Bruise, The Scarlet Tide. 

Songs I'd Like To Hear Live: Either Side Of The Same Town, Bedlam, Needle Time, The Judgement.

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