Official Proclamation: Elvis Costello, or should I say Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, has begun his reign as King of America. Aside from the name change, he's grown a beard, dropped his old band (The Attractions are featured on only one track), switched producers; and the result is his strongest work since 1982's flawless IbMePdErRoIoAmL.
King of America was produced T-Bone Burnett, and the most evident change brought about by this is the absence of the heavy reliance on horns that existed on both Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock. The new sound has been simplified in many respects with more of an emphasis on acoustic guitar and a shift in the role of Elvis' voice. Whereas he seemed almost cold and calculating in earlier albums, the vocals on King of America overflow with a raw emotional sense. Another difference is the fact that Elvis draws most of his inspiration from the "idea" of America and its music, a fascination that began on his earlier country album, Almost Blue. Here, both the lyrics and the music are influenced by America, "Where they pour Cola Cola just like vintage wine."
"Brilliant Mistake" opens side one, and sounds like a potential single in which Elvis seems to come of age by looking into the past, "I was a fine idea at the time, but now I'm a brilliant mistake." Next is a fast paced tune entitled "Lovable" that Costello co-wrote with his fiancee Cait O'Riordan (bassist and vocalist for the Irish band, The Pogues).
"Little Palaces" is perhaps my favorite track on King of America. Here, Costello plays acoustic guitar and mandolin, backed only by a string bass. The eloquence of the mandolin contrasts beautifully with Elvis' voice, allowing the song to ebb with anger and despair as he expresses his concern about child abuse and the disillusionment of economically depressed families:
So you knock your kids about a bit,
because they've got your name
And you knock your kids about a bit
until they feel the same
And feel like knocking down the Little Palaces.
"American Without Tears" touches the feelings of loneliness and separation brought on by war and immigration.
Now I'm in America and running from you
Like my grandfather before me walked
the streets of New York
And think of all the women I pretend
mean more than you
When I open my mouth and can't seem to talk.
On "The Big Light," Costello quips about his hangover with a personality that searches his soul, forcing him to realize that, even though he has had a "big night," he still has to face "the who am I, and who is she, and what did I do" the next morning.
The piano on "Jack of All Parades" is reminiscent of earlier stuff, and "Suit of Lights" sounds a lot like the older Elvis, mostly because he's backed by the Attractions on this song. The final cut, "Sleep of the Just" is made strong by Costello's voice which once again, is superb. He flows from thoughtful narration to a timid wistfulness, then into a sense of passionate despair, ending it all with a feeling of absolute solace.
King of America for the most part, is an excellent album, and one that really seems to represent the changes Costello has gone through, as is clear in the chorus of "I'll Wear It Proudly,"
Well I finally found someone to turn me
And nail my feet up where my head should be
If they had a King of Fools then I could
wear that crown
And you can all die laughing
Cos I'll wear it proudly.