Hot Press, February 27, 1986

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UK & Ireland magazines


King Of America

Elvis Costello

Bill Graham

Consider both the facts and the odds. It would be more likely that a torrent of frogs would descent from the skies to land on the Palace of Westminster and then pass through six floors down to the Parliamentary chamber to squelch upon Margaret Thatcher's head that that King Of America would be anything other than an excellent album.

For when Britain's most consistently prolific songwriter take his longest ever sabbatical from the treadmill of record-making, he is hardly likely to return with anything but a superior batch of songs. Equally having broken ranks with the Attractions to record with some of America's most characterful musicians, his music is bound to benefit from the change of climate. For those logistical reasons alone, King Of America was likely to rank among its creator's superior albums.

But, of course, there is more to it that that for on King Of America, the ventriloquist, Declan McManus finally discloses himself behind the dummy, Elvis Costello to speak in the first persona, revealing himself as someone who's patently passed through an emotional and attitudinal watershed obviously linked to his highly public relationship with Pogues bassist and occasional singer, Cait O'Riordan.

The change is most evident in the album's mood and its confessional love songs. Previous Costello albums were often slashed by caustic lines born out of suffocating, stifling intimacy. But now intimacy seems to have lost much of its anxiety. Now intimacy breathes freely albeit not without its share of past regrets.

The lyrics invariably benefit. Though still densely structured, they don't challenge the listener to a crossword puzzle. Now the metaphors naturally evolve as if stimulated by a deeper, truer experience.

Of course, he still delights in playing games with preconceptions. Anyone who announces his name-change who then in the album's first line informs us "He thought he was the King of Fools then I could wear that crown / And you can all die laughing / Cos I'll wear it proudly" but who also insists on appearing bedecked in a crown and full royal regalia, is either setting himself up for immense US theses or has a highly complex three-ring sense of humour. Myself, I suspect the latter and am only disappointed there weren't some obscure backwardly recorded messages in the run-out groove.

But to the music. After the increasing pop gloss that led to Armed Forces, Costello cut back to the rough hewn production of Get Happy and King Of America is a similar reaction to Punch The Clock, this album being characterised by a flat, generally unburnished sound that's often well-nigh folky, a policy underlined by the use of acoustic bass on ten of its fifteen tracks.

Personally I might have preferred some added sparkle and colour in the mix but setting that caveat aside, this album's musical economy and simplicity lets Costello the singer perform without distraction, the one exception being "Glitter Gulch" when he has problems following the spring heeled playing of James Burton and Co.

Otherwise ladies and gentlemen, take your choice among the songs. My current favourites are the closing three songs on the first side where complexity is perfectly in service to compassion. When on "Indoor Fireworks," he sings "Sometimes we'd fight in public darling", it's that "darling" which which is the difference between it and past examinations of failed relationships.

Both "Little Palaces" and "I'll Wear It Proudly" are the folkiest tracks, the first about how families infallibly pass on their inadequacies – "And you knock the kids about a bit/Until they feel the same" – the second a love song that moves to a most endearing climax.

Songs like these are more direct but also deeper, the product of a less divided man who seems to have undergone a lucky loss of emotional fastidiousness and, perhaps, ride. He's also having a lot of fun. On previous albums, "The Big Light," a song about hangovers, could have been slowed down to a self-lacerating dirge but, here the band's sparkling drive give the performance a self-effacing merriment fitting for someone who's finally publicly saying "Yes" to many things he might have denied before.

The same emotional positivism surfaces on his reading of J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues" and the rocking "Lovable," co-written with Cait. "My baby has Egyptian eyes and a wicked look beyond compare", you get the picture?

Of course, this doesn't mean he's wholly and irresponsibly abandoned himself to frivolous pleasure. With the aid of veteran jazz bassist, Ray Brown, "Poisoned Rose" is a marvellous show blues while "Our Little Angel" recalls past failures. King Of America is a most interlocking album. Its references continually rebounding to take on extra meanings. "Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary" he says of "Our Little Angel" but the line could just as suitably refer to his own past character. and throughout the album. The puppet Elvis is a target to be knocked down in the coconut shy of his lyrics, "brilliant mistake" or someone once dressed up "in a suit of lights".

I'm only just hinting at the wealth of interwoven meanings. But finally this is an album of a man who's found his way through, who admits "Oh I was anybody's boy / But soon that thrill just fades. / To be the love of one true heart / Or the Jack of all parades." Get happy, too!

Rating: 9 / 12

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Hot Press, February 27, 1986

Bill Graham reviews King Of America.


1986-02-27 Hot Press cover.jpg


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