Costello came in 1978 when, in the midst of his first Stateside tour, he performed a volatile live set on NBC's Saturday Night. In perhaps his proudest moment as the definitive Angry Young Man, Costello tore into FM radio with the unrelenting Radio Radio. Ten years and a dozen albums later, Costello has mellowed—at least on the surface. Gone are the quixotic jerks of an anorexic Buddy Holly, along with the "mouth almighty" that threatened his career on more than one occasion: What remains is perhaps the most refined pop lyricist in the business. What's more, with the release of the single, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (a remake of the Animals classic) Elvis appears to be on the verge of the broader acceptance he has so long sought in America.
After a two year hiatus from recording, Costello is back — this time, as Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (his real name), having gone to court to legally lay to rest the fictitious Elvis. Unlike John Cougar Mellencamp, however, Mr. MacManus still answers to his stage name. This year's entry is titled, King of America, and is credited to The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello). This, the first time since his debut Elvis has played sans his ace sidekicks, The Attractions. The album features in excess of a dozen musicians—from former members of Elvis Presley's band, to jazz sessionist, Jerry Scheff, to Los Lobos' Dave Hidalgo. The result is an uncommonly textured work, reminiscent of the 1982 milestone, Imperial Bedroom.
The album marks a return to the often unkind self-analysis lacking on Elvis last two records. The first track "Brilliant Mistake" is a retrospective look at the career of a critics' pet — "I was a fine idea at the time, now I'm a brilliant mistake..." Here, as in other tracks, subtle traces of the old Elvis come peaking through. The lyrics allude to the bitterness and frustration unleashed in such early classics as "I'm Not Angry," and "Lipstick Vogue." The production, by both Elvis and comrade, T-Bone Burnette is sparse and tasteful, highlighting acoustic guitars (handled exceptionally well by Costello himself — a man who's guitar work has been referred to as "grinding" in the past), brushes and a lush double-bass. With "Indoor Fireworks," a song originally penned for pal Nick Lowe, Costello shows his deftness in manipulating a single metaphor for an extended period without seeming contrived.
Side Two is more of the same—through the accordion tinged, "American Without Tears" and the smoke-filled cabaret of "Poisoned Rose," to the infectious slap of "The Big Light," a satirist's tribute to a hangover.
"Suit of Lights" (the only tune on which the Attractions play) is a eulogy to Costello's father, Ross MacManus, a once popular Big Band leader. The lyric recounts the downfall of a classic tragic hero, the despondent musician subject to the whims of a restless audiences. "...they pulled him out of the cold, cold ground and they put him in a suit of lights."
The album's closing song, "Sleep of the Just" is a lifting memorial to whatever Declan MacManus resents about Elvis Costello — a sentimental farewell to the nervous energy of an obsessive alter ego, "And now you say that you've got to go if you must you must I suppose you need the sleep of the just..."