The problem with Elvis Costello has always been the same — credibility. How do you believe a guy who seems more to be playing with words than to be saying something he really feels? How do you believe a guy whose chords and chord progressions have gotten so runny, vague, and noncommittal that you suspect they'd be just as effective played backwards? How do you believe a guy whose singing style is distinguished by its ironic mock sincerity?
In that it reveals the artist's own struggle with these questions, King of America marks an important departure for Costello, whose real name, Declan MacManus, is used in the album credits. Based closely on a small variety of traditional genres such as folk, blues, and country & western, the music is harmonically clearer and cleaner than that of Costello's last few albums. Thankfully, the glitzy, ambiguous chords are fewer. The best thing about the music is the production by T-Bone Burnett, which is spare, simple, and direct, in stark contrast to the busy, murky, funhouse hurly-burly into which The Attractions, Costello's backup band, had degenerated. Solid, understated playing by former Elvis Presley sidemen serves to clarify, rather than to obscure, the impulse behind each song.
Costello's struggle to come clean, and the partial extent of his success, is most apparent in his singing, which had gradually turned into a monstrous parody of the oozing, smarmy lounge crooners of yesteryear. Now, through his new resolve to be himself, he has managed at least to keep this parody at bay long enough to turn in two or three of the most genuinely moving performances of his career.