Nine years ago, when Declan MacManus took "Elvis Costello" as his nom de disque and proclaimed ELVIS IS KING all over the cover of his gloriously nervy debut, My Aim is True, it seemed like a brash and scrappy dance on Elvis Presley's still warm grave, an unceremonious burial of the lumbering elephant rock and roll had become, the pop-cultural reascendency of a feral Britain over a complacent America. And yet it wasn't long before Costello was rampaging through the USA heartily partaking of the all-Americanisms that surly, ahistorical punks were supposed to find so boring. He sang with George Jones and offered to write Frank Sinatra a few tunes; he showed up on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, and Letterman; he recorded tributes to Stax and Nashville and Rodgers and Hart; he had a fling at his own Viva Las Vegas! — a cameo in the stinker Americathon — and a fling with America's girl-next-door groupie, Bebe Buell.
Seems that "Elvis Is King" bit was more heartfelt homage than wise-cracking usurpation. And why not? Costello was as intrigued by the myth and mystery, the adoration and vulgarity, the promises kept and broken, as any other Presley fan. And if Presley represented all that was truth-telling and right about rock and roll, and drew out all that was good and bad about America, then Costello aspired to retrace the King's footsteps, follow the trail of the music right into the heart of its birthplace, and blaze a path of his own — neatly sidestepping all the pain and pitfalls, mind you. Which makes the "Elvis Is King"-echoing title of Costello's new King of America (Columbia) — not to mention the cover photo that shows him staring wearily into the camera from under a tacky Imperial Margarine crown — so, well, pathetic. "He thought he was the King of America / But it was just a boulevard of broken dreams / A trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals," goes the opener, "Brilliant Mistake," and it's a sob from the depths of self-loathing and disillusionment. Eleven albums into a brilliant career that's been stalled in cultsville, plagued by overreach, and haunted by public indiscretion, Costello finally admits that though he knows pop success in America is a booby prize (look where it got Presley), he's still too dazzled by the rhinestones to give up the pursuit. Nowadays, his hand-me-down name fits more snugly than he probably ever imagined; Elvis Costello is plump and misunderstood and — as he groaned on his 10th album, the tapped-out and tongue-tied Goodbye Cruel World — he just wants to be loved.
King of America is a self-flagellant perfectionist's record, a besotted 4 a.m. wail of nothing left to lose, an admission of defeat (his 1983 mainstream overture, Punch the Clock, didn't make him bigger than Jesus, or even George Michael), an appeal for justice (good work should be rewarded by massive acclaim, shouldn't it?). Yes, it's full of self-pity — the real stuff, not the big tears that flooded his 1981 C&W excursion, Almost Blue. But even when Costello's blaming his troubles on the dangerous allure of America's celebrity meat grinder, he's lucid enough to save some black-humored blame for himself for being such an eager piece of meat — people do the craziest things for a slice of immortality, you know, and in "Sleep of the Just," the strange, mournful ballad that closes King of America, Costello is attracted to both the small-town girl (Madonna?) who poses for a centerfold and the gung-ho young soldiers who pin her picture to the barracks wall. And though "Brilliant Mistake" makes it clear he thinks he's the victim of a recent critical backlash ("I was a fine idea at the time / Now I'm a brilliant mistake"), well, who could begrudge him a rebuttal as eloquent, or as guilt-ridden, as this?
King of America is the first Costello record since the lavish pop kaleidoscope Imperial Bedroom (1982) to carry the heft and aura of a major work. It also shares Imperial Bedroom's flaws: it's too long, too scattered, and at times too lyrically insular. Of the 15 tracks on King of America, four are throwaways (say what you will about Punch the Clock, its concentration on political, sexual, and intellectual lassitude made it one of Costello's most cohesive albums) and two others are quite good. The remaining nine surpass anything on Imperial Bedroom. At its best, King of America recalls, occasionally even sounds like a continuation of, Costello's (arguably) finest album, Get Happy!! (1980). For one thing, it shares the earlier record's unfussed, first-take looseness; T-Bone Burnett is the most sympathetic producer Costello has had since Nick Lowe, except Burnett's more of a minimalist. Bypassing the Attractions (they appear on only one cut) in favor of studio musicians like jazz stand-up bassist Ray Brown, Presley sidemen James Burton (guitar) and Ron Tutt (drums), and Del Fuegos producer Mitchell Froom (Hammond organ), and recording the performances live in various LA studios, Burnett gives Costello the lean sound his foggy voice craves and his sneakily nuanced lyrics deserve. One folkish ballad, the anti-Church-and-State rant "Little Palaces," takes an exquisite cue from Costello's 1984 solo tour and features just the singer, an acoustic guitar, and a mandolin; "Indoor Fireworks," "Sleep of the Just," and "I'll Wear It Proudly" offer only the barest shadings of string bass, brushed drums, and sighing organ.
The '60s-soul-inspired Get Happy!! was a frantic, mordant, bleary-eyed odyssey through an America that looked better from a distance; the similarly disheveled and bluntly autobiographical King of America tries to make sense of it all on a return visit. The attraction / repulsion that Costello professed on the elegantly disoriented waltz "New Amsterdam" ("Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile") is even more finely etched on the new record in another bittersweet waltz, the accordion-flecked "American Without Tears." Here, the promise of a life of plenty in the States beckons British GI brides and, four decades later, British pop stars, and both end up shortchanged by the American dream. That sentiment is slyly continued in the next cut, a rollicking, scathingly pertinent cover of J.B. Lenoir's postwar economic protest "Eisenhower Blues," with Costello's frustrated howls and blotto blues belting the essence of empty pockets turned inside out.
Although Costello identifies with every poor soul who ever bought a phony bill of goods, he shows equal compassion for the seller, for the purveyor of the misperceived image. On King of America, he finds the best uses for his favorite metaphor for impotence — failed communication — since This Year's Model, except that here he details problems that are scarier than anything you could encounter between the sheets. In a chilling, funeral-tempo reinterpretation of the Animal's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," his voice ravaged as if he's screamed himself hoarse, Costello invokes the cold sweat of the (song)writer's nightmare — misinterpretation — and the terror of being trapped in a public identity that no longer fits.
But there's an even nastier demon at the heart of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," one that surfaces in the earnest emphasis Costello places on the lines "Don't you know I'm only human / I've got my faults just like anyone / Sometimes I lie awake long regretting / Some foolish thing, some sinful thing I've done." It's the same demon he tried in vain to exorcise with Get Happy!! Seven years after the infamous Ohio barroom brawl in which a drunken Costello tried to win a putdown match with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett by calling Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger" ("In my drunken logic, [what] would anger them more than anything," is his oft-quoted and admittedly weak justification), Costello is still apologizing. And he's still smarting: it was a cruel irony for a songwriter so hooked on the precision of words to be hanged by his own inarticulation. And it was a rude awakening: a true believer makes it to the promised land and finds that it's full of envious natives itching for a chance to cut up all those foreigners for messing with the music.
The pivotal track of King of America, the elegiac "Suit of Lights" (the Attractions' only track and the only one that calls for their plush playing), is Costello's most poignant attempt to explain (but not absolve) himself; it continues the meditation on the savagery of fame that he began in "Worthless Thing," the one glowing cut from Goodbye Cruel World. The first verse of "Suit of Lights," something about talking carelessly and getting raked over the coals for it, sounds like a reference to the Ray Charles incident and to Costello's shame over it ("Outside there was a public execution / Inside he died a thousand deaths") — the "suit of lights," glaring notoriety, might as well be a straitjacket considering the relentless grip it has on his reputation. Costello wages a game struggle to defend himself against the crime of being human, decrying the build-up-to-tear-down impulse that fuels a celebrity-addicted culture, where the tragedies, foibles, and skeletons in the closet of the famous (or even the marginally well known) are more popular entertainment than their art. But he finds grim, though oddly comforting, humor in the spectacle of icons' being picked clean to satiate public demand for a little piece of greatness. The celebrity gets one final perk: "And they pulled him out of the cold, cold ground / And they put him in a suit of lights," goes the chorus — fame is forever. The problem is, he can never know what his immortal name will come to mean after he's gone; he could be remembered for an indelible song or a timeless performance (the track begins with a reference to Nat King Cole singing "Welcome to My World"), but then, as Costello noted on "Worthless Thing," he could also end up the inspiration for "vintage Elvis Presley wine."
"Suit of Lights" is one of the saddest songs Costello has written; how difficult it must have been for such a historically conscious pop fan to admit that he has no control over what history will say about him (and there's no doubt he expects the worst). But for much of King of America Costello has slapped down his morbid pessimism and decided to live for the moment; it can't be a coincidence that his gloomiest, most personal record also contains some of his warmest, least calculated performances (even at the low point, the impenetrable rockabilly number "Glitter Gulch," his singing is zestily unkempt), as well as two of his tenderest, most revealing love songs. In "Jack of All Parades," he drops the security of circuitous wordplay for an achingly direct "I loved you there and then / It's as simple as that," and "I'll Wear it Proudly" (his best C&W song since "Motel Matches," from Get Happy!!) is a lusty and humble pledge of head-over-heels devotion: "If they had a king of fools then I could wear that crown / And you could all die laughing / Cos I'll wear it proudly."
The joke is, of course, that he does wear that crown on the album cover, and he wears it with a touching dignity, the kind that surprises you by sticking around even when dreams and self-esteem have crumbled. Yes, there's ragged nobility in his choosing, on "Jack of All Parades," the "love of one true heart" over a multitude of fleeting affections — and his choosing, in small and large ways all over the record, to please himself before pleasing the (pop) world. And there's a gleeful unburdening in the deliberately confusing way he credits himself as, variously, "Elvis Costello," "The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello)," "Little Hands of Concrete," and — it's about time — Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, jauntily throwing public image out the window. At last, he's only human.