At this stage of his career, Elvis Costello is most convincing when he goes Americana. His best album of this decade, The Delivery Man, found him recording in Oxford, Mississippi, and harmonizing with Lucinda Williams, and here he teams with old pal T Bone Burnett and cuts a bunch of bluegrass-inflected, Dobro-and-violin ballads.
Only with his countrified material has he found a consistently comfortable groove for the one theme that never fails to fascinate him: doomed, obsessive love. In 1986, Burnett lifted Costello out of over-production doldrums with the stripped-down King of America. Secret is similarly stark, with the gorgeous, wrenching “I Felt the Chill” (a collaboration with Loretta Lynn) and “I Dreamed of My Old Lover,” a desperate bid for the comforts of sleep. Costello even gets silly with “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” a horn-dog travelogue that tells us “the women in Poughkeepsie take their clothes off when they’re tipsy.” If this dude keeps it up, he just might get a slot at the Bluebird Café.