The catchphrase was splattered in tiny letters all over the checkerboard cover of My Aim Is True: "Elvis Is King." In 1977, an upstart English company called Stiff was launching a new Elvis: singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, a slight, knock-kneed, former computer operator with a few axes to grind. "As you know," ran one of Stiff's ad campaigns, "there are only two Elvis. One is fat and famous, one is small and languishes in obscurity. Stiff Records, ever keen to meet the record-buying public demands, have hatched a plot that allows you to become a potent factor in El's future." Why not have the audacity to usurp Elvis Presley's title? What was there to lose?
Costello, born Declan Patrick McManus, was soon regarded as one of the most articulate, if angriest, voices of the English new wave — a poet among the rogues, if you will. Some American fans, put off by the harsh clamor of the Sex Pistols, heard a clearer, cleaner vision in Costello's music. "Alison," a ballad on his first record, even became a hit for Linda Ronstadt, much to Costello's chagrin. As the new wave dissipated — as the empty, style-conscious bands took over from the original punks — Costello continued to surge forward. He's never had a mega-hit, never been much of a Top 40 artist, but his popularity has grown. He's woven leftist politics into his softest pop; he's written startlingly complex love songs. In recent times, no other pop artist has been as prolific: 11 studio albums in nine years.
Every so often, artists re-evaluate their direction, reconsider their "progress" and then strip away the excess. Think, for instance, of Bruce Springsteen's stark Nebraska. After a series of artistic ups, and, more recently, downs, Costello has gone through that process, musically and lyrically. And, again, he's proclaimed himself king: King of America. Clocking in at more than 50 minutes, King of America is credited to The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello). It's his first LP since My Aim Is True to be recorded without the primary backup of the Attractions. (Here, they play on just one cut, "Suit of Lights.")
But if the first "Elvis Is King" statement was made as a reckless jest, this time it seems soberly self-mocking: King of America, indeed. Who do I think I am? Who did I think I was?
On the sepia-tone cover, a bearded, bespectacled, crowned Costello looks positively ridiculous. Opening with the melancholic title song, he sings, "It was a fine idea at the time / Now it's a brilliant mistake." He covers the Animals' pleading pop classic "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and imbues it with wrenching, ragged sincerity. He closes side one with the off-kilter boast of "I'll Wear It Proudly": "If they had a King of Fools then I could wear that crown / And you can all die laughing / 'Cause I'll wear it proudly."
This is, perhaps, revisionist history: certainly, the tone of self-denigration is typically British. The Kinks' Ray Davies and the Who's Pete Townshend, songwriters who've also woven their personal lives into the fabric of their songs, have walked similar paths. But for a man who made the barbed accusation his calling card, who made inclusive bitterness his constant companion, this is a deeply introspective, generous and more than occasionally, self-critical album. And, unlike recent Costello output, it's challenging: Costello's both returned to form and grown.
After the superb Armed Forces in 1979, Costello's albums slid down a notch or two — from excellent to great or good. With Costello's last two albums, Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, he sank into mediocrity. Songs on those albums were more convoluted, less emotionally intense. On one hand, he seemed caught up in over-arrangement and clutter, obscuring the value of his words; on the other, he seemed to be stuck in a complacent middle-of-the-road bog, exemplified by his easygoing hit "Everyday I Write the Book."
But there was more than the declining quality of the music. Danny Kelly, an editor at the English music paper NME, recently wrote: "Rumours (too difficult to substantiate, too persistent to ignore) have pulsed endlessly along music's bush telegraph. They tell of a troubled love life, of a drink problem, and of an artistic stone wall. The truth or otherwise of these things is uncertain, but at London gigs and clubs last year he was a bloated, sweating presence. For whatever reasons, he looked a wreck." Until King of America, there had been a year and a half absence from recording, the exception being a single made with T-Bone Burnett under another name, the Coward Brothers.
Although it's a more mature work, many facets of this album — the production value, melodic craft, simplicity of arrangement and emotional clarity — remind one of that first record. It's reflective, sad, edgy. It subtly brims with rage. And while it's still punctuated with the smart lyrical jab ("So you mix your drinks and words / You make bad jokes, you make bad time" in "Our Little Angel"), it's not dependent on its wordplay. Featuring songs such as "Indoor Fireworks," possibly about the breakup of his marriage, and "American Without Tears," about losing identity and his resolve while in America, this one seems straight from the heart. And while that heart might, at times, be embittered, it's not poisoned.
Musically, there are several changes and at least one irony. If Costello was once jibing Presley, or the Presley myth, here he employs former Presley guitarist James Burton. It's people like Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, drummer Jim Keltner, producer-guitarist T Bone Burnett, Los Lobos' accordionist David Hidalgo and Del Fuegos' keyboardist-producer Mitchell Froom who fashion a spare, lean sound, reminiscent of early rock 'n' roll and country music. This time, too, Costello got the country feeling right; his major country effort, Almost Blue, was drenched in Billy Sherrill's string-laden production.
It's possible this work was inspired by the Pogues, a London-based band that mixes a traditional Irish acoustic sound with a punk bite. Costello, who produced the Pogues second album, has taken the group on tour as his opening act and even filled in on vocals for an ailing Pogue on stage. Moreover. Costello recently was engaged to the Pogues Caitlin O'Riordan.
Whatever the inspiration, Costello's found himself again. This record does not denote a permanent separation from the Attractions. Costello's scheduled to go in the studio with them soon to record another LP. It's a good bet that the heart, soul and songcraft shown on King of America will spill over.