How must it feel to be considered the most gifted lyricist alive (I know I'll never find out, so I can afford to speculate)? To be so talented that you can dash off something brilliant in ten minutes that Dylan only wished he had the wits left to write — how difficult it must he to live with this cursed blessing. The usually reserved rock critic for the New York Times begins foaming at the mouth at the very mention of your name — he even goes so far as to call you the new George Gershwn when you know you can't even read music. Throughout your career you define and nurture your chosen persona; you're certainly cynical, passively political, part misogynist and part worshipping servant. But now the angry loser role has grown tiresome. Your last two records, complete with wailing female singers and over-produced horn arrangements, resemble musical breakfast cereal — the tripe you promised yourself you'd never make. To top that off, you fall in love with a young girl, a member of the Irish progressive group The Pogues, and take time off the produce her band's debut. The diehard fans and critics are, frankly, puzzled. What next? Will Elvis become born again?
Hardly. Instead Mr. Costello abandons this aforementioned persona, and immortalizes this departure by legally changing his name back to Declan Patrick MacManus. The producer of his last two records, Clive Langer, was not asked to return; Mr. Costello's backing hand, the Attractions, appear on only one cut from King of America, "Suit of Lights." T-Bone Burnett takes over the helm on this album, and Mr. Costello is, for the most part, backed up by various members of Elvis Presley's TCB Band. The music on this record is stripped bare; it cannot hide behind a producer's artifice, and Mr. Burnett chooses to let the songs speak for themselves. The arrangements are simple, folksy (that does not translate into country). Mr. Costello plays acoustic guitar almost throughout the record. and even tries his hand at the mandolin on "Little Palaces," a blunt attack on Britain's complacent suburbanites. But the token shining achievement on this record is his voice. The lyrics are not spit into the microphone as on This Year's Model, but sung clearly and passionately, which only serves to intensify his lyrics all the more. He has never sounded better than on "I'll Wear It Proudly," which is also a Costello first — an unabashed confession of love without any disclaimers attached. "Brilliant Mistake," again, features his voice, with the added warmth of Jerry Scheff's bass illustrating this bitter, wistful song.
The entire record carries this sentimental yet still satirical tone throughout. This work is the picture of a struggle through what was obviously a personal crisis, and an encore will be difficult. But let us not think of sequels and instead praise Mr. Costello for pulling himself out of the pop muck and giving us the only record that could possibly top Imperial Bedroom. In this month's issue of Musician magazine, producer T-Bone Burnett is quoted as saying "...nobody's realized yet how good he really is." It gives me great pleasure to say that with the release of King of America, Elvis Costello shows us how good he really is. And to think that anyone ever doubted him.