"I was a fine idea at the time / Now I'm a brilliant mistake." sings Elvis Costello on the first cut of King of America. The lyric carries with it two implicit assumptions. First, it says that Costello is somehow a conscious construct — a thing that was created. Second. it claims that that created thing is a failure.
Interestingly enough. Costello goes under his given name — Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus — for the first time on King of America, his 11th album. Could it be that Costello/MacManus is finally jettisoning his adopted name, and all the baggage that comes from being dubbed an Elvis?
Judging from the album's title, its regal cover and its contents, Costello is staking his claim here to both Elvis Presley's title and turf. He did that once before, on My Aim is True, his 1977 debut album, which had E-L-V-I-S-I-S-K-I-N-G stenciled repeatedly into the checkered pattern on the cover.
It's nine years later, and the boast is more justified now that it's based upon a fascinating and extensive body of work. But it's a boast nonetheless, and coming from a mature, critically acclaimed artist, that's a bit discomforting.
On King of America, Costello invites the comparison to Presley. He reels off two rockabilly numbers, "Glitter Gulch," and The Big Light," with the Confederates (James Burton. Ron Tull and Jerry Scheff) — a trio that used to back Presley.
Costello is among the most versatile singers around, and he is as comfortable rocking out on "Lovable" and "Glitter Gulch" as he is singing the blues (which he does on a cover of J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues" and on his own "Poisoned Rose"). The backing sound, coming from a potpourri of seasoned session men, is always competent but not overbearing and it leaves Elvis' magnificent voice in center stage throughout.
Costello is at his very finest when he is in his own voice. "Suit of Lights," (a tribute to Presley?) combines Steve Nieve's soaring organ and piano with some of the nastiest lyrics Costello has ever penned. It's also the only cut on the album where the Attractions are heard. The album's first single, a cover of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Understood," is edgy and raw in its emotional pleading.
Individually, the songs are among the best of Costello's recent work and they deserve consideration. But there is more to an album than 15 songs. And the message of King of America is conflicting. Costello roots the album in Americana and records it in Los Angeles, using American musicians and drawing heavily on his American musical influences. He then turns around and bemoans American cultural hegemony on "American Without Tears." Costello works against himself similarly on "Jack of All Parades," stating the case for "one true love" within the context of an album that pays tribute to many loves. Most damagingly, Costello moves from an aborted rejection of his Elvis persona to a wholehearted indulgence in it.
Declan MacManus doesn't have to play such games.