The short version for people who, like me, hate to read reviews: National Ransom , featuring Americana and pop sounds, was recorded in Nashville and>"/>
The short version for people who, like me, hate to read reviews: National Ransom, featuring Americana and pop sounds, was recorded in Nashville and LA by T-Bone Burnett, with Leon Russell, Marc Ribot, and two of the Attractions. It's one-third tedious, one-third solid, and one-third great.
It's hard to get good information about Elvis. He puts out music at least twice as fast as most musicians half his age (ten studio albums since 2001 to the Shins' three). His varied output--those ten most recent records span rock, country, and classical--excites as much antagonism as it does admiration.
On his IFC talk show, "Spectacle," Elvis recently apologized to Sting for saying such nasty things about him back in the day. In his old age he seems to have developed solidarity with others whose ambition draws scorn. (Personally, I prefer Asshole Elvis to Magnanimous Elvis. In an interview he was once asked to comment on a list of musicians, and when he came to Sting's name, said something along the lines of, "Sting? Sting?? I don't know of this Sting person you speak of. I thought that was a smudge on your paper." But I can appreciate that that level of bitterness isn't sustainable.) At any rate, I've found that with reviewers getting so bent out of shape and worked up, there's no subsitute for actually listening to the music myself.
National Ransom finds Elvis working the same basic template as last year's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, with another cover by comics artist Tony Millionaire. Again, traditional country instrumentation is augmented by other far-ranging sounds, and again the melodies rarely settle into the comfortable grooves that the steel pedal guitars and mandolins lead the ear to expect. There's something almost jazz-like in the way Elvis stretches and angulates the phrases of the folk lament "All These Strangers":
There was a deal done in Benghazi and Belgrade
Upon a scimitar or other crooked blade
Ransacks and loots, vacated suits
And pistol points but never shoots,
Army sitting in a locomotive yard without their boots
If you can even follow all that, you might find yourself wondering how you got there from the simple tale of jealousy the song started with ("I saw my baby talking with another man today"). The thing is though, these are fantastic lyrics, each compact image a story in itself. Right up to the last line anyway, which pushes the meter from eccentric to unwieldy.
Can't he just give us a regular ol' pop song for once, the kind he does so well? As if in answer, Elvis tosses off "I Lost You," a happy, simple tune with a hook that the otherwise tense-sounding band works over with relieved joy.
That Elvis is in need of an editor is a common complaint. But he can't help himself. Even on highly dubious roads, he charges forth with the enthusiasm of a suicide bomber. "A Slow Drag With Josephine," meant as a jaunty bit of 1920s-inspired fun--complete with by-jove gum-crackery, hip flasks, and skiddle-daddle-do's--is unmitigated ear irritation. Even when following his simple pop instincts, he can go terribly wrong, as on "The Spell That You Cast," with its relentless hook that doesn't hook.
But he's working hard on National Ransom--a sweaty-palmed Vaudevillian conjuror on a soap box in the back alley that is his career at age 56. And he pulls off more than a few dazzling tricks. "You Hung the Moon," a gorgeously crooned ballad about a WWI widow, could just as easily be about the treatment of the current generation of war vets and their families:
So slap out his terrors
And sneer at his tears
We deal with deserters like this
From the breech to the barrel, the bead we will level
Break earth with a shovel, quick march on the double
Lower him shallow like tallow down in the abyss
You hung the moon
From a gallows in the sky
Choked out the light in his blue lunar eye
The shore is a parchment
The sea has no tide
Since he was taken from my side
One of my all-time favorite Elvis songs is called "The Milk of Human Kindness," which he called his attempt to create a blast of pure cheer like "High Hopes." He closes National Ransom with another song in that vein, "Voices in the Dark." It's so happy and silly, I find myself getting out of bed some mornings just so I can hear it.
You could argue that you shouldn't have to work so hard to get to the pleasurable part of an album. But music isn't about arguing. And there's something stirring about an artist you grew up with continuing to make records with such unabated creative energy. Besides, I never want to be one of those sad nerds who write break-up notes to Elvis ("I stuck with you through string quartets, the Charles Mingus Big Band, and Burt Bacharach, but this time you've gone too far!"). Giving up on him now would be like giving up on myself.
There was a recent profile of Elvis in the New Yorker that went by in a flash of writerly virtuosity and imparted almost no new information. There were a few good quotes though. "I've gone through the door and can do whatever the fuck I want," he said one point. And, "I play for those who are listening."