Elvis Costello is one of the best contemporary songwriters, and certainly the most, uh, rigorous, who also hopes to be popular. This has made for difficulties. His initial widespread acclaim, accompanied by widespread record sales, leveled off with 1980's Get Happy!! — by me, his best ever — and has never really risen above respect and admiration and modest sales since. Beginning with Almost Blue, his country excursion, Costello's progress was diverted by a fascination with guises, by musical sophistication not really for its own sake but not for the sake of the songs either. Last year's solo tour (with T-Bone Burnett opening) got Costello to focus his hard-edge attention once again. As a result, King Of America, produced with Burnett, is sung and played beautifully, affectingly, with the songs themselves paramount.
Recorded live in the studio, Costello's vocals have never been captured this close to the bone before. All the cracks — the very last "angel" in "Our Little Angel" — and screams ("Lovable," "Eisenhower Blues") give the tracks an amazing presence and immediacy. EC's husky, constricted baritone reaches way beyond its obvious limitations toward the imperial pipes of Merle Haggard and Bobby Bland, true kings of America. And his sinuous jazz-inflected phrasing carries dark melody lines (and his usually dark thoughts) on surprising, sometimes startling journeys to his usually hooky choruses.
The "Confederates" (Costello respects the Attractions enough to call attention to their absence) assembled here, including the core of Elvis "King of America" Presley's band — James Burton, Ronnie Tutt and Jerry Scheff — as well as veteran drummers Jim Keltner and Earl "Da Doo Ron Ron" Palmer, are perfect role players, doing just what is required. And Costello, who calls himself "Little Hands Of Concrete" on the sleeve, controls the sound absolutely with his austere rhythm guitar.
But with all this brilliant singing and playing, King Of America is still, hands down, the most difficult record I've listened to in months. Even with careful study of the enclosed lyric sheet, several songs remain opaque at best. I can live with ambiguity better than most, but when a track is written and sung with such precision, such palpable passion, I suspect it's about something specific and I'd like to know what. In the case of the complex "Suit Of Light," or the elegiac "Sleep Of The Just," or the gleefully bitter "Glitter Gulch," to cite three, I simply have no idea. There's plenty of misanthropic overstatement, too. "Outside they're painting tar on somebody / It's the closest to a work of art that they will ever be," might be witty if I knew who "they" were. Probably not, though.
Most of all, the songs are overwhelmingly concerned with betrayal and venality. So what else is new, you ask? "American Without Tears," an almost tender ballad mostly about war brides, and "Little Palaces," a brutal neo-folk song about working class lives in public housing make sense in this context. Other cuts — "Brilliant Mistake," "Lovable," "Glitter Gulch" — are just plain mean-spirited. After eight years of making records, Costello loves his ressentiment too much, methinks, and has never regained his momentum that made the tension in his early work interesting. I don't expect piety, but his terminal suspicion of any and all culturally sanctioned happiness gets tired, too. Even my favorite, "I'll Wear It Proudly" — an actual love song! — opens with a list of things EC hates. He's certainly not the first king of America to end up sullen and miserable, but he's probably the first to do so before he ascends to the throne. Curtsy at your own risk.