When last we heard from Elvis Costello, he was running out of gas.
It was the summer of 1984, and the British singer-songwriter had released an album of mud-dled tunes that fell short of his usual high standards and indicated that the prolific Costello and his trio, the Attractions, were overdue for a sabbatical. By the title of that last LP, Goodbye, Cruel World, even Elvis seemed to be admitting that some changes had to be made.
It's nearly two years later, and how's this for making changes? Costello has left his wife of 10 years, become engaged to musician Cait O'Riordan of the Pogues, legally changed his name back to the handle he was born with (Declan Patrick MacManus) and, most importantly for Elvis fans, come out with a powerful new album, King of America" (Columbia), that reaffirms his standing as a premiere pop composer and performer.
On this 15-cut, 58-minute record, Costello attempts to break from his old tendency toward excessive wordplay and unnecessarily fancy melodies.
Of course, Costello still can't resist tossing off a gunny line ("I'd rather be an outlaw than your in-law..."), but now he's casting aside cleverness in favor of undisguised feeling.
Where Elvis left off, Declan is picking up. When he sings "It was a fine idea at the time, now it's a brilliant mistake," he's apparently referring to his old role as a "pop star" and deciding to put his cards on the table for all they're worth.
Another major alteration for Costello is his use of various all-star musicians, billed collectively as "The Costello Show." The Attractions, his back-up group from 1978 through '84, appear on only one song on the album, the elegiac "Suit of Lights."
The remaining tracks feature combinations of such players as jazz masters Ray Brown on bass and Earl Palmer on drums; James Burton, Jerry Scheff and Ron Tutt from Elvis Presley's TCB Band; the Hall and Oates rhythm section; and veteran Los Angeles session drummer Jim Keltner. Amazingly, though, the sound of the LP is seamless throughout, as though one band were providing all the musical support. Recorded in L.A., the record was produced by Costello, T-Bone Burnett and Larry Hirsch.
The dominant instruments on King are Costello's twangy acoustic guitar and the watery organ played by various musicians.
As a result, most of the tracks (such as "Indoor Fireworks," "I'll Wear It Proudly," "American Without Tears," "The Big Light" and "Glitter Gulch") have a smokey country sound and an unblinking emotional honesty that already are drawing comparisons to the first two albums by The Band.
Costello also adds the flavors of jazz ("Poisoned Rose," which Tony Bennett should record immediately, and J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues") and rubber soul ("Jack of All Parades" and a breathtaking cover of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood").
On the latter particularly, but also all over the album, Costello/MacManus shows newfound power as a vocalist. Whether whispering a sad farewell to marriage on "Indoor Fireworks" or roaring drunkenly about those "Eisenhower Blues," he sings every song as if he's got an important message to deliver.
That message is: Elvis is dead but his music lives on.