Elvis Costello is back. Or, should I say, Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus is back. Well, that's what he wants to be called, now that he's legally changed his name back to the one his parents gave him. He claims that changing it in the first place was a mistake, but can he really expect us to stop calling him Elvis Costello? For the purposes of this review, at least, I'm calling him Elvis.
After some degree of Top 40 success with his last two albums, Elvis seems to have put aside commercial considerations, proclaiming himself "King of America" and unassumingly putting out his best album since Imperial Bedroom in 1982. On King of America, Elvis has dispensed with the smooth production of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, which characterized 1983's Punch the Clock and 1984's lackluster Goodbye Cruel World, and opted for the more acoustic sound of T-Bone Burnett. T-Bone's production, in large part responsible for excellent albums by Los Lobos and Marshall Crenshaw, among others, has helped make Elvis' songs sound more heartfelt than they have in the past couple of years.
King of America is also Elvis' most American-sounding album, aside from his country excursion, Almost Blue, which consisted entirely of covers of country songs. Here, the majority of songs are heavily influenced by rockabilly and country, but in this case all but two were written by Elvis. The exceptions to this are his covers of the Animals hit, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (here sounding a bit gloomier than the original) and "Eisenhower Blues," written by J.B. Lenoir, saved from being a throwaway only by excellent playing from the "Costello Show."
This backing band consists mainly of blues and studio musicians, all among the best in their fields, in different combinations on each song. The most frequently used on the album are Mitchell Froom, producer of both Del Fuegos albums, on organ, and Jerry Scheff on bass. Elvis' usual backing band, the Attractions, play as a group on just one song, "Suit of Lights." Elvis plays guitar on most of the songs, humbly referring to himself in the music credits only as "The Little Hands of Concrete."
King of America is just chock full of strong songs, and among the best are "Brilliant Mistake," which would have been very much at home on Imperial Bedroom; "Lovable," with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos singing harmony; the sparse yet powerful "Little Palaces"; "American Without Tears," and "Suit of Lights." Elvis certainly doesn't skimp on the music either — this album clocks in at just under 57 minutes(!), making it the longest single album that I've ever heard of.
The only fault I find with King of America is the same one I've found in most of Elvis' work over the past few years. I really miss the raw, angry edge so prominent on his first three albums, in the days of his "Angry Young Man" image. Elvis has mellowed considerably since those days. Oh, how I long for another Armed Forces! Well, I guess the change is just a matter of maturity and hitting "middle age," so maybe it would be a little too much to expect something like that.
Given the direction that Elvis decided to take with his music around 1980, King of America is a great album that stands up to the best of his work since Trust. He sticks closer to his ideals in music here than he has in some time, not succumbing to the pressures of commerciality. For the time being at least, King of America might very well give Elvis some claim to that title.