Daily Princetonian, April 3, 1986

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Costello wrestles with royalty on
King Of America album


Jeff Gordinier

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Nearly ten years ago, Elvis Costello burst onto the infant punk scene as new wave's hip thinking man. The critics embraced Costello because of his intelligence. The kids grabbed for his anger. Though he looked like a pigeon-toed geek, Costello was, deep down, a cynical gnasher-of-teeth, furious about pop radio, British politics and being dumped by one too many women.

Printed all over the cover of Costello's first album, My Aim Is True, were the words "Elvis is King." His new record, almost a decade later, is called King of America. But the punk king is gone. Costello has grown. He is no longer the King of Anger, but Declan MacManus (his true name), a regal, sensitive and definitely adult songwriter and singer.

King of America begins with "Brilliant Mistake," a song which refers to Costello's punk heyday with both nostalgia and bitterness: "He thought he was the King of America / Where they pour Coca-Cola just like vintage wine... I was a fine idea at the time / Now I'm a brilliant mistake." The song brings out a tone of confession which haunts the album through all 15 cuts. Personal revelation emerges as the element which makes King of America infinitely more successful than Costello's failures, Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock.

And like Costello's finest work, Imperial Bedroom and Armed Forces, the new disk showcases a mishmash of styles. "Lovable" is a rousing rockabilly number. "The Big Light" is a country-western hangover song. "Sleep of the Just" is a quiet ballad. Each cut is a capsule of emotion, energy and setting.

Costello's cover version of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" is irresistably gruff and tense, as is the other non-Costello tune, "Eisenhower Blues." Neither cover is a throwaway. Both have their place in the album's American motif, and both are simply great songs. "Poisoned Rose" stands out as the album's romantic killer and is my favorite. Slow, jazzy instrumentation and passionate vocals hint that Costello's got his soul back. Another gem, "Little Palaces," converts punk anger into folk angst: "It's like shouting in a matchbox / Made of plasterboard and hope / Like a picture of Prince William / In the arms of John the Pope."

Frankly, there's not a worthless song on King of America. Each cut contributes to the record's concept: a Brit's vision of the sound, lust and demands of the United States. Nat King Cole, Eisenhower, Judy Garland, Coke and ABC appear as icons in front of a backdrop of American jazz, soul, folk, and country music. Costello searches for a home, either the dour England of "Little Palaces" or the hokey, commercial U.S.A. of "Glitter Gulch" and "American Without Tears."

The music itself reflects this theme. Costello performs in most cuts with a piano-bass-drums jazz combo (and not the Attractions, who can be heard in only one song). The sound is stripped-down and the production is up-front and live. Costello's voice is deeper and less whiny. There are no synthesizers, drum machines or funky horn sections. And without all these frills, Costello comes across with more power. He has even avoided the show-off rhymes he flogged to death in the early eighties. Now his lyrics do more than pun: "And the doors swing back and forward / From the past into the present / And the bedside crucifixion / Turns from wood to phosphorescent."

King of America is the best Elvis Costello album in years and, so far, the finest record of 1986. It is a rich effort, full of prizes with each repeat listen. Costello has grown up and, though some may yearn for a screaming punk youth, he has accepted his age. New eyeglasses, a beard, a noticeable beer belly and a new name all signal the change. Elvis Costello is no longer the King of Anger. The adult Costello is the King of Song.

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Daily Princetonian, April 3, 1986


Jeff Gordinier reviews King Of America.

Images

1986-04-03 Daily Princetonian page 06 clipping 01.jpg
Clipping.

1986-02-09 Daily Princetonian pages 06-07.jpg
Page scans.

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