Repeats and covers account for about a third of the album. Of the remaining tracks, four (She Handed Me A MirrorHow Deep is the RedShe Was No GoodRed Cotton) come from a song cycle for the Royal Danish Opera about Hans Christian Andersen’s love affair with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. 

The cycle is based around her 1850 visit to America, leaving her admirer behind, with She Handed Me A Mirror built on the story that Lind made Anderson look at his reflection to understand why she would never be his. 

Of the other new tracks, two (Sulphur to Sugarcane and The Crooked Line) are Costello/ Burnett co-writes, and Costello shares the writing credit with Loretta Lynn on I Felt the ChillDown Among The Wines and Spirits, and My All Time Doll are solo compositions.

It’s a collection of songs recorded in a three-day session in Studio A at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, where Burnett and engineer Mike Piersante had cut the soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain as well as Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand. 

In line with the subject matter of most of the songs, a sort of Deep South Gothic Victoriana if such a beast exists, the instrumental accompaniment is acoustic, and if there’s anything that actually has been electrified it isn’t obvious in the mix. Drums are also conspicuous by their absence.

The instrumental line-up - fiddler Stuart Duncan who also doubles on banjo, stand-up bassist Dennis Crouch, mandolin player Mike Compton, Jeff Taylor on accordion and dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas - adds plenty of light and shade to the recording. 

Burnett’s trick of working live in the studio, recording softly to analogue tape but playing back loud results in a recording with plenty of warmth, and you get the distinct impression that they’re there in the room with you playing live. Jim Lauderdale adds shadowing harmonies throughout, adding an extra, almost subliminal warmth.

Like most of Costello’s recent efforts, the listener’s reaction to the album is probably going to reflect whatever baggage you’re bringing with you rather than what’s on the album. Personally, having been listening to a fair bit of bluegrass Americana recently I’m inclined to rate it highly, though there’ll be others who’ll probably dismiss it on the basis of their own prejudices.

In any case I’m inclined to the viewpoint that Costello’s always been as much about the writing as the recording and performing. Less than a fortnight out from my first exposure to the man in concert I may be revising that opinion, of course, but if you look at the album as a collection of songs written over a fairly lengthy interval that have been recorded in a particular setting I think it works rather well.

The songs fit the treatment, the setting works and the performances are recorded in a way that captures the live in the studio feel. Works for me.

© Ian Hughes 2012