There's no mistaking the high, lonesome sound that launches Down Among the Wines and Spirits, the first track on Elvis Costello's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (which arrives in stores tomorrow).
As the singer sketches the sad tale of a man's decline from besotted lover to mere sot, his mournful melody is framed by the metallic whine of a dobro and wry, bluesy fiddle asides, with time being kept by a slow-thumping acoustic bass and plinking mandolin. It's a musical vocabulary redolent of Kentucky gentility and hillbilly fervour, but take care before leaping to conclusions and applying the "B" word.
"It's obviously not a bluegrass record," says Costello, over the phone from his New York home. "It's a ballad record. It's a narrative ballad record using the instruments that are most commonly heard in bluegrass, and some rhythms borrowed from country music." Not that country is the only flavour in evidence. "There's some rock 'n' roll, and there's some, I guess what you might call ragtime. I don't know what kind of beat you'd call Sulphur to Sugarcane."
"Yeah, old-timey. Whatever that means."
It's an odd mix, but then again, the provenance of the songs on Secret,Profane & Sugarcane is far from typical. Some of the songs are new, of course, but a few go back more than a dozen years. Complicated Shadows, for instance, dates back to Costello's 1996 album All This Useless Beauty.
"But when I recorded it [back then] I took it very far away from the way it was written, because it was written for Johnny Cash," he says. Cash never recorded it, but he did cut a version of Hidden Shame, which also appears on both the new album and Useless Beauty.
Then there's the lost-love song I Felt the Chill, which he wrote with country legend Loretta Lynn, and Changing Partners, which was a hit for Patti Page in 1954. Stranger still, four of the album's songs come from The Secret Songs, Costello's opera in progress about Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen's relationship with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind.
Opera arias and country weepers? How on earth did Costello arrive at that combination?
"I just wanted to go into the studio with T-Bone [Burnett]and make a record that was acoustic," says Costello. "I'd said that I wanted to make a record that had the intimacy of an acoustic record, and I even talked about it possibly being a solo acoustic record initially. And then I started to discuss songs that I had written, and other songs that I was considering visiting, and in some cases revisiting."
But it wasn't until they got into the studio that the album began taking its unusual shape. Burnett, who is perhaps best known for having produced the soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain, had recruited a team of bluegrass heavy-hitters for the sessions, including dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas, fiddle ace Stuart Duncan and bassist Dennis Crouch.
"Of course, as I found in the course of making this record, they were capable of covering a lot of ground," says Costello.
"I began with a straight-ahead song, Complicated Shadows, and a classically shaped ballad, I Felt the Chill. I also had in my back pocket these songs that came from the Hans Christian Andersen opera, that had a lot more corners to negotiate, musically speaking. But the ease with which they took those first songs in stride made me think, 'Well, let's try them and see what happens.' They played She Handed Me a Mirror, and it was effortless. It really allowed me to just sing it, and not be thinking about what are we going to play."
From that point, the real challenge in assembling the album had to do with the way the songs and their related themes of secret burdens and power relationships played off one another. "Some of those [threads]are quite serious things, and you have to frame them in different ways," he says.
"As I started to record, I began to realize the ways in which one song sets up another, just as they do in a concert. There were getting to be more and more possibilities, and a lot of them were handed to me by the vividness of the playing."
Costello will push that even further when he takes the Sugarcanes (as the studio band has come to call itself) on tour this summer. "Obviously, it'd be a very short show if we just played those 13 songs from the album," Costello says. "Every group of musicians you get the opportunity to play with give you the chance to revisit some songs in a slightly different way. I mean, you can imagine that the songs from King of America, which were also acoustic guitar and bass predominantly, would lend themselves to this instrumentation very well. But a number of other songs would as well. Some of them will be quite surprising to people. I haven't rehearsed them yet, so I don't know that they're all going to work out, but I have the intention to play some songs that wouldn't be the first things to come to mind [with this band]
"The concert performance is really where it's happening with the greatest freedom," he adds. "To me, the relationship between recorded music and concert music is getting more and more intriguing. Everybody is getting in some mad panic, with doomsday scenarios about the record business - and certainly it's not good to see record shops all boarded up - but we have to accept that it's the transition we're in.
"In the meantime, the performance of music is just getting freer and freer, to my way of thinking."
Elvis Costello will perform with the Attractions at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on July 8, and with the Sugarcanes at the Malkin Bowl in Vancouver on Aug. 24, and
Massey Hall in Toronto on Aug. 28.
Elvis Costello, Canadian?
While talking about the tunes from his opera, The Secret Songs, Costello makes mention of their "louche and risqué characters," then stops himself. "Wow, now I'm lost and gone to Canada," he says, chuckling. "That's two French words in one sentence!"
Of course, part of the joke is that Costello really has gone to Canada. Since marrying jazz pianist Diana Krall in 2003, the two (and their twin sons) split their time between Vancouver and Manhattan. "I don't know whether I really feel Canadian," he says. "I feel at home in Vancouver, very much. But I don't think one can assume a new nationality. I mean, I am English."
And to be honest, Costello and Krall don't spend a lot of time at either home. "Diana and I are on the road a lot of the time, because that's our real job," Costello explains. "Making records is a luxurious thing that we get to do occasionally; our real livelihood is concertizing, and New York would be the centre of that world.
"But our family home is very definitely in Vancouver, because as you can imagine, that is the very best environment possible for 2½-year-old boys. It's an incredible place."