Elvis Costello mysteriously laid low in 1985. The normally prolific artist, who put out ten albums in seven years, had only a volume of greatest hits to offer in 1985. Now, a full year and a half since his last LP of new songs, Goodbye Cruel World, comes King of America, an album that suggests that Costello's approach to songwriting has taken a new direction.
There is quite a bit of confusion to waft through on King of America. To begin with, the album cover reads "The Costello Show — Featuring the Attractions and the Confederates." Costello's talented backup band The Attractions appears together on only one of the album's fifteen tracks. At the suggestion of producer T-Bone Burnett, Costello has recruited an additional handful of veteran rock and country musicians, among them former members of Elvis Presley's backup band, guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, and drummer Ron Tutt. With this change in personnel, Costello has declared his divorce from pop music. By using musicians whose careers date back to the days before the onslaught of synthesizers and pop iconography, Costello has achieved his goal.
Elvis is capable of writing great songs that do not need fancy orchestration, as is proven by songs like "Lovable" and "Little Palaces." The former is an irresistibly hummable tune that immediately sounds like an old classic from the fifties. "Little Palaces" is a folksy song which succeeds with only guitar, acoustic bass, and mandolin behind Costello's ever-powerful (if unusual) voice. On the raunchy-sounding "Eisenhower Blues", his singing exudes a happiness I can't recall hearing in any other Costello song. For the first time in his life, Costello is having fun with his songs, laughing his lyrics rather than spitefully over-enunciating them. "American Without Tears" is a fine acoustic anthem about an awestruck English visitor (based on Costello's grandfather) who is enchanted by the eccentricities of New York.
King of America is not without its semi-pop songs. "Suit of Lights," the song on which all three Attractions play, and "Jack of All Parades" combine traditional rock riffs with a more modern pop sound, reminiscent of Paul Simon. Equally good is Costello's offbeat remake of the old Animals song "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", featuring a plucky-sounding marimba and impassioned vocals from Costello.
I can't help wondering, though, how some of the songs on King of America would have sounded had they received a more thorough studio treatment. Songs like "Our Little Angel" and the rueful "Indoor Fireworks" are good as they stand, but I suspect that they could have been great songs if they had been arranged and produced the way the songs on Costello's 1982 masterpiece, Imperial Bedroom, were done. On that album, Costello pulled out all the songs, using horns and multiple keyboards, and overlapping vocals. Of course, such production would be inconsistent with the philosophy of King of America, but by the end of side two, one grows a bit tired of the repeated country and rockabilly phrasing.
We can't put Costello at fault for what he has done, though. He has stuck to his original concept, and made an album which achieves his stated goal. Costello has gone so far as to legally change his name back to Declan McManus, so as to rid himself of his old pop identity. I can't help missing the old Costello's wittily sarcastic pop-rock songs, but in King of America, the new Costello/McManus has not betrayed his commitment to making great music.