Elvis Costello cemented his reputation — and for all intents and purposes ended his artistic career — nine years ago by releasing, just months apart, King of America and Blood & Chocolate. The latter was a late blast from the Attractions, the violent trio who backed Costello from This Years Model on. Impressive at the time as a reassertion of his rock prowess, it now seems a bit light. King of America, on the other hand, just reissued in remastered form by Rykodisc, has only grown in the intervening years. The record's importance lies in the way Costello, the first of the punks to cope with the diminution of the rage that fueled the music for years, unblinkingly addressed the havoc that time was wreaking on the punk ethos. King of America is not a concept album: its deepest, most densely written song, "American Without Tears," has nothing to do with this theme; it's a reverberating portrait of a pair of female British expatriates. Nor is the album perfect — limp rockabilly and blues numbers like "The Big Light" and "Eisenhower Blues" are there only to illuminate the backing band, the Confederates, composed of T-Bone Burnett and members of Elvis Presley's TCB backup ensemble. But it is a self-conscious masterpiece of obsessions on doubt and decline.
The album is built around the opening title track and a closing suite of three songs, "Jack of All Parades," "Suit of Lights," and "Sleep of the Just." Spiced throughout with Costello's darkest, severest wordplay, they are united in thematically probing Costello's stardom, or lack of it, over a decade of wide critical acclaim. His analysis is bleak. Stardom is defined alternately as "a trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals" or, in the form of a Madonna pinup, fodder for the masturbatory fantasies of the masses: "All the soldiers taking turns with their attentions." His career is waning: "I wish that I could push a button / And talk in the past and not the present tense." Rock has lost its malevolent force: "I went to work last night and wasted my breath." He surmises darkly that he will be celebrated posthumously: "They pulled him out of the cold cold ground / And put him in a suit of lights."
King of America's sound, driven by acoustic guitars and piano, is rugged and sprawling, as open as a prairie. Costello underlined the album's sweep and scope with an epic tour that year. Major cities saw a series of three shows: on night one he and the Attractions coursed through Blood & Chocolate and their previous tough glories; on the second he and the Confederates played King of America and various rootsy excavations (a sample of this is caught — nicely but somewhat irrelevantly — in a bonus disc, Live on Broadway 1986, included in the first batch of King of America reissues); the third show, dubbed the "Amazing Singing Songbook," featured Costello and the Attractions playing randomly selected songs from their years together. Critics at the time stretched to fit the nights into a "past, present, and future" format. How obvious it seems today that the correct parallel was past, past, and past. Indeed, the work Costello would give us in the years since — unconcerned product like Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, monstrous collaborative experiments with the likes of the Brodsky Quartet, and, most pathetically, a reunion with the Attractions last year — would be flaccid imitations of his vibrant early work. We know it now; he knew it then.