With The Delivery Man - Elvis Costello and the Imposters' first release for Lost Highway -- one of modern music's most admired and prolific talents has delivered a remarkable album that draws the on deep American musical roots more than any of his releases since "King of America" in 1986. It is a collection that ranges from ferocious, bass-driven opening track, "Button my lip", which speaks in the voice of a desperate man on the verge of committing a terrible crime, to a tender and timely, closing rendition of, "The Scarlet Tide", referred to by Costello's co-composer and fellow Oscar Nominee, T Bone Burnett as an "anti-fear song".
Like a lot of great things in music history, The Delivery Man can be said to have started with the late great Johnny Cash. "The Delivery Man is actually a character imported from a song I wrote in about 1986 for Johnny Cash," Costello explains. "He's based on a real character. I read this story in the paper about a man who confessed to murdering his childhood friend thirty years later, having been in prison for a number of other things. I thought this story was very interesting because he'd carried this burden of guilt of this childhood crime. I wrote a fictional version of that story in a song called `Hidden Shame', which John recorded." Over the years, the story of the Delivery Man stayed with Costello, and began to inspire not only a series of songs but also the start of story arc as well. "I've thought about that character a lot and what happens to people that commit crimes in childhood," says Costello, "In the story, the character Abel is somebody who appears in a small community and plays a different role to a group of three women. Abel carries his secret heavily (as in "Country Darkness") and the reason that he seems reminiscent of somebody in the song, "The Delivery Man" is that they have seen his face as a child in a newspaper report of the crime he committed. There is still a little of that person in the adult Abel. Of course, that's never actually stated anywhere in the record. That's just something that I know."
Costello has deliberately left the story that drives much of The Delivery Man open-ended for now. "A number of the songs on the album relate to The Delivery Man story, while the others, "Bedlam", "Needle Time" and "Monkey to Man", are about the world that happening outside the window, the insane things that keep breaking into the lives of these characters from the T.V. and radio", he explains. "My original intention was to make the album entirely The Delivery Man. Then the more I wrote and thought about it, the more I was reminded that don't remember the context of every great song in a musical -- you just remember the song. What's much more important is whether each song touches you, affects you in some way. I didn't feel I wanted to make this album stand or fall on whether you could follow a narrative or even present the story in a chronological order. You might say it begins near the end of the events with 'Button my lip', as a crime is about to be committed and just like in some movies, we see some of how we got to that point and how the characters feel about their lives."
The songs artfully trace the Delivery Man's impact on the lives of three women. As Costello explains, "There's Vivian, a divorcee, who likes to make out that she's having a much wilder life than she really is. She's somewhat disappointed in life. Her best friend is a pious war widow Geraldine whom she visits every day over coffee and tortures with intimations of a wild and colorful life that she's clearly making up. But because of the nature of this pious woman, Geraldine struggles with being titillated by being a gossip as well and at the same time trying to protect her own daughter, Ivy from following Vivian's example. This Delivery Man, Abel, comes through their life becomes a sort of someone on whom they project their desires in different ways."
In the album's stunning, dramatic title track, "The Delivery Man" is alternately compared to Jesus and Elvis - definitely the other one named Presley. "The comparison between Elvis and Jesus is really more that the Delivery Man becomes an object of lust for one woman, an object of devotion for another and an object of curiosity for the younger women," Costello says. "I've left out a lot of threads because like any good mystery story, people can puzzle it out for themselves."
Costello's second lucky break in putting The Delivery Man together was finding the perfect place to record such an album with a real sense of place. "My rhythm section - drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher -- had been down to Mississippi and made a great record by Buddy Guy called Sweet Tea," Costello says. "That turned me on to a great studio called Sweet Tea in Oxford, Mississippi." For Costello --- who produced The Delivery Man with Dennis Herring - "a lot of making a rock 'n' roll record -- when you've made a lot of them -- is about catching yourself unawares" Costello also considers himself incredibly fortunate to have been able to drawn upon a gifted repertory company of singers and players for The Delivery Man. Beyond the Imposters -- longtime Attractions Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve, and more recent revelation Faragher -- the album features winning turns from two of Costello's own favorite artists, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
Costello states, "Emmylou Harris is the greatest harmony singer on the face of the earth. There's no question about that. She's also a great solo singer and a great songwriter as well. I've sort of known her to sort of say hello to, but I wouldn't say we've been close friends. We appeared on a T.V. show with George Jones in 1981, We performed together on a gala show at the Kennedy Center a couple of years ago and sang "Heart Shaped Bruise" for the first time and then performed it throughout the A Concert for A Landmine Free World tour in Europe in 2002.
This year, when Costello and Nieve played the Ryman Auditorium an opportunity to further the collaboration presented itself. "Emmylou and her mother, Eugenia, were in the audience and after the show, I asked Emmylou if she would consider coming and singing "Heart Shaped Bruise" on this album and she agreed. Then as we were preparing for the record, I asked if she would also consider singing "The Scarlet Tide" with me -- she'd heard, Alison Krauss' version of the song. It was such a joy to hear her sing that on the day of the vocal session in Nashville, Dennis Herring suggested that Emmylou might add a harmony line to the chorus of 'Nothing Clings Like Ivy'. We sort of sprung it on her but she did it beautifully. She sings the part of Ivy's mother, so it adds some sorrow to the chorus when you hear her singing about the missing girl."
For Costello, Harris was truly perfect woman to vocally play Geraldine. "Emmylou has this great sense of poise, grace. These are the words that come to mind when you think of her singing. And she has sung a number of songs that have a stoic quality so she's completely perfectly cast, vocally. She made a joke with me and said "So I get to play the good gal then?" And I said "Yeah, that's right. On the other hand, Vivian -- the bad girl, at least relatively speaking -- is brilliantly played by Lucinda Williams, who memorably throws herself into "There's A Story In Your Voice," a vivid duet with Costello. "Our paths have crossed for years and I think Lucinda's one of the five best songwriters in America and a terrific, terrific singer," says Costello. "As a ballad singer, as a rock 'n' roll singer, as a blues singer -- you name it, she's got it. So I wrote this song, always imagining her singing it. She has this wounded quality in some of her songs that is obviously the voice of Vivian: the disappointed woman. Luck took hold of it in the studio. She came in and we already had the track down so it was just the two of us in the studio singing on two mics and she just hit it right away. She just started performing it and it was: "watch out." It's not like very many other vocals you've heard her do except live. It's got the intensity of early Wanda Jackson record or something like that. It's got that kind of abandon."
The Delivery Man also features Costello's own take on a couple of his songs that have previously been recorded, "Either Side of The Same Town", which he wrote with the great songwriter-producer Jerry Ragavoy for Howard Tate's Rediscovered album and "The Judgement", which first appeared on Solomon Burke's Grammy winning, 2002 release Don't Give Up On Me.
Costello says these songs found new meaning in the context of "The Delivery Man" album, "Originally, "Either Side..."was just a break-up song until we put it next to "Bedlam" in the sequence. Then it started to pick up this "our madmen are the same as their madmen" theme. The same venal and mortal sins are committed everywhere in the world but thanks to 24-hour global news television; the society that are described seem about two feet apart. Our reality is the same as the people we are supposed to fear. We have more luxuries, wear different clothes and bow to different deities but the essentials of fear and control are the same."
"Either Side of the Same Town" and "The Judgement", were consecutive "first take" performances on one of the most productive days of the Sweet Tea sessions, in which five of the album tracks were cut. Costello says, "This was my contribution to the tradition of 'Court of Love' songs that takes in "I Stand Accused" and O.V. Wright's "Eight Men and Four Woman" but if people want to hear it as Abel getting his comeuppance, then that is fine by me. Steve Nieve's playing in the last verse and chorus was so emphatic that is sounded as if he is sending someone to his damnation. It became a joke between us, I said to him, "What's this, 'The Cowboy Don Giovanni'? I thought we were making 'The Cowboy Three Sisters'".
The Delivery Man's first single, "Monkey To Man", is an exciting new song with some real history. Costello recorded this Crescent City-flavored, twisted tale of evolution at Delta Recording in Clarksdale, MS. As Costello explains, "It's an answer song, only 50 years late, to Dave Bartholomew's `The Monkey." It's a rock 'n' roll song about a monkey sitting in a cage saying `Well look, this is the supposedly superior being" when you see everything that man's achieved and squandered."
Musically, it's like a great, lost New Orleans classic restored for a new century. "I didn't want it to sound like some retro record but I wanted it to have some quality I always loved about Alan Toussaint production," says Costello. "Proper rock & roll should swing. If anybody ever calls me a "rock musician", I take issue with it and I say I play rock'n'roll music, a rock just lies in the dirt and has no life in it. Whatever you want to call it, we were looking for that vanishing point in the road where country, rock and roll and soul music all meet. I believe we may have found it."
--- from the official Elvis Costello & The Imposters website