Every album Elvis Costello makes is supposed be the one we've all been waiting for, so there's no sense burying the lead: "The Delivery Man," Costello's latest, ain't it either. It is close, though -- so close that fans who followed their erstwhile angry young dweeb up through 1986's "Blood and Chocolate" but lost interest when he became a "serious artiste" will likely hail it as a return to form. Which, in fact, it mostly is. Recorded mainly over a long weekend at a low-rent studio in Oxford, Miss., "The Delivery Man" represents Costello's first stab at an instantly accessible album in nearly two decades.
Obsessives, no doubt, will assert that Costello has delivered the goods at least twice over that stretch of time, checking in with a prim and proper collection of pristine pop-rock (1996's "All This Useless Beauty") as well as a self-consciously abrasive set that, to more dispassionate listeners, mainly seemed designed to keep naysayers at bay (2002's "When I Was Cruel").
Costello, after all, was the closest the punk era ever came to producing a Bob Dylan, a genuine rock poet who, at his best, was capable of conjuring and dismissing Winston Churchill, apartheid and the National Front in one single, improbably well-turned phrase. His other patented specialty involved setting those phrases to melodies that Abba -- not to mention the Buzzcocks -- would've positively drooled for.
With a pedigree like that, connect-the-dots pop just doesn't get it done. And that goes double for ill-advised forays into Bacharachian la-la land and winsome collaborations with Paul McCartney. Suffice it to say that while Elvis Costello in his prime used to be disgusted, for most of the last two decades he's mostly just seemed confused.
Against that backdrop, "The Delivery Man" qualifies as a genuine triumph. Apropos of Costello's jaundiced temperament and southern setting, the disc is shot through with plenty of sturm and twang. "Country Darkness" is a pedal-steel-streaked weeper worthy of his well-documented obsession with all things Nashville. Alt-country scene queen Lucinda Williams turns up, too, contributing a cartoonish southern drawl to the otherwise sublime "There's a Story in Your Voice." Living legend Emmylou Harris also shows up, lending a soft-focused warble to "Nothing Clings Like Ivy," a torn-between-two-lovers torch song, and "Heart Shaped Bruise," a bitter, George Jones-style ballad that would have been right at home on "Almost Blue," Costello's '80s-era collection of cool country covers. "The Delivery Man" easily gets the nod over that golden oldie, though. Gilded with expertly tossed off rockers ("Button My Lip," "Bedlam") and the odd Farfisa-fueled gospel number ("The Judgement"), the album isn't some mere respectful reproduction. Indeed, throughout the disc, Costello's backing band -- a trio featuring erstwhile Attractions Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums -- gives its leader exactly what his latest batch of songs needs: short, sharp stabs of pithy pop licks.
But still, does that make "The Delivery Man" just what the jilted fan ordered? In large measure, yes. Costello's latest is a smart, hook-laden album that, without a doubt, is the best thing he's done in ages. Not coincidentally, it's also one of the best things you're likely to hear all year.