Even at his worst, Elvis Costello is pretty competent. Here he plays something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane quilts together 13 mismatched songs with the help of producer/guitarist T-Bone Burnett and session greats like Jerry Douglas (on Dobro) and Jim Lauderdale (vocal harmonies), with even Emmylou Harris dropping by for a song.
One track dates from The Delivery Man days; some are from Costello’s unfinished Hans Christian Andersen musical; a couple are even older. But the entire enterprise is given a country and bluegrass sound by the players that works well on songs like “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” a collaboration between Costello and Burnett. A cover of the old standard “Changing Partners” played light comes off lovely.
Sometimes, these songs are squeezed by a style that isn’t quite right, or the songs aren’t quite memorable enough to overcome lackluster presentation. Yet there is nothing truly bad here; if anything, this music is tasteful to a fault. “How Deep Is the Red” could benefit from electric guitars, as could a few other tracks. You can almost imagine better music Costello could have pulled off. But the always-sincere Costello never sells this effort as more than an outtakes collection performed by a hired band to forge consistency between these disparate songs.