NEW YORK — Elvis Costello, the most talented songwriter to emerge from the ferment of English new-wave rock, has gone back to basics on his excellent new album, King of America (Columbia).
The album, produced by Costello with T-Bone Burnett, using small instrumental groupings that feature veteran country studio musicians, has the feel of a late-1950s rockabilly album. The slower songs, which have an easygoing, country-folk flavor, contain some of the catchiest melodies of Costello's songwriting career.
Uncluttered by fussy production, his passionate vocals have a terse, strangulated intensity that reminds one of his spiritual ties to rockabilly, especially the music of Buddy Holly.
The album's 15 cuts include two interesting revivals. The first single is a raw, anguished rendition of the Animals' 1965 hit, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." The other remake is a freewheeling rock-and-roll jam on J.B. Lenoir's obscure "Eisenhower Blues." "Glitter Gulch," the album's other hardest rocker, looks back in spirit to the surrealistic playfulness of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," while "Indoor Fireworks" is the closest Costello has come to writing a country ballad unequivocally celebrating domestic bliss.
King of America is an impressive return to form for an artist whose last two albums softened his edgy, combative sensibility in elaborate arrangements.
"I think of King of America as an '80s punk album," Costello said recently. "Musically, these are the simplest songs I've ever written. They were composed on an acoustic guitar without a lot of jazz chords. I wanted to make sure the lyrical clarity wasn't compromised with a lot of extraneous musical nonsense. The recording was done live, with very few overdubs, and mixing was done the day we recorded."
Looking back on the recent past, Costello is displeased with his last two albums, Punch the Clock and Goodbye, Cruel World.
"Especially on Goodbye, Cruel World, I allowed the arrangements to run away with themselves," he reflected. "While on a solo tour last spring, I discovered that a lot of the songs on those records were stronger when played very simply. I vowed never again to fall into the trap of making records that try to sound like the year in which they were recorded."
While Costello denies that King of America is a concept album, a number of the songs examine the American dream from a visitor's point of view. The most memorable new song, "Brilliant Mistake," presents three interlocking vignettes of people who are dazzled by American-style dreams of fame and glory but who end up disillusioned.
"In the same way that a lot of what Brecht wrote about America was based on what he saw in gangster movies, my dreams about America came mostly from records and TV programs like Kojak, " Costello said. "When I first went to Detroit, I was so naive I half expected to see the Supremes standing on the corner and singing."
Costello's assessment of his recent past coincides with a recognition that, contrary to the predictions of many pop soothsayers, he may never follow the original Elvis into major commercial success.
"I'm not interested in having a dishonest hit," he said. "I've been making records for eight years, and I'm too old to be bothered about becoming a big pop star. I know that if I'm true to myself I'm more likely to live a longer, happier life. I think, however, that pop music would be much healthier if from time to time a record like King of America were a big hit. It would encourage others to be more daring and to work outside of the straitjacket of formats."