Elvis Costello is dead.
He's not really dead though, because if you talk to Elvis himself you may find that Elvis Costello never really existed. This talented songwriter is now coming out of the closet dressed in his real name and his true musical identity on his latest album, King of America.
In recent interviews, Declan McManus has stated that he is tired of the pop star myth, and it is quite apparent on this album. With fellow musician T-Bone Burnett at the production helm, the album has a crip acoustic sound like no other album McManus has made. A great variety of instruments are featured, including string bass, piano accordion, harpsichord, organ, marimba, mandolin, French accordion, and the standard piano, acoustic and electric guitar and drums.
One of the biggest surprises this album offers is the virtual absence of the Attractions, McManus' supporting band for the last seven years. In fact, the band as a whole only performs on one track and the album is credited to a band called the Costello Show. Rather, McManus has opted for a group of session musicians including the likes of Ray Brown, Earl Palmer, Mitchell Froom, Jim Keltner, James Burton, Jerry Scheff and Ron Tutt, the latter three of whom were part of Elvis Presley's band.
Apparently the Attractions are still in the game, however, as McManus is reportedly now at work in the studio with them. But I must admit my skepticism at his decision to use a bunch of session musicians. I hate to think of McManus as an aging musician plucking away at blues licks in some lush studio, and that's what I get when 1 hear a throwaway like "Eisenhower Blues." But I also must admit that this album contains some of McManus' finest moments in his 10-album career.
Undoubtedly the strongest cut on the album is the leading track, "Brilliant Mistake." Burnett's production leaves so much space it feels like being right there in the studio as McManus sings a beautifully melodic and honest tune about himself: "He thought he was the King of America, but it was just a boulevard of broken dreams ... I was a fine idea at the time, but now I'm a brilliant mistake."
The album then proceeds into a mesh of different styles of music: "Glitter Gulch" and "The Big Light" are rockabilly to the core with some Carl Perkins-like guitar solos from Burton; "Lovable" is the most rocking tune on the album with a running bass line from Scheff; a definite country twang can be heard on "American Without Tears" and "Our Little Angel:" "Little Palaces" brings to mind the old West with its mandolins; "Poisoned Rose" is another attempt at blues, and a better one than "Eisenhower Blues" I might add; and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" is McManus' homage to the Animals.
The most impressive songs, however, are those that fit more conveniently into the old Costello mold, such as "I'll Wear it Proudly," "Jack of All Parades," "Suit of Lights" and "Brilliant Mistake." All are laid-back songs with familiar but infectious melodic twists that settle easily and show that McManus is indeed won of the finest songwriters today.
In an interview with Musician Magazine, McManus called some of his past work "a load of wank" and said the New York Times was "ridiculous" in calling him the new George Gershwin. On his new album, McManus spoke very fondly, saying: "There's more love in this."
King of America won't rock you, and won't give you the familiar poppish Elvis Costello. What we get instead is Declan McManus and a finely crafted work which may be remembered as one of his best.