In brocade and jewelled crown, Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus stares out from the sleeve of King Of America, his beard and spectacles framing an unsmiling face. The image is both ridiculous and deadly serious, neatly encapsulating – consciously or otherwise – the maverick terrain of this uneven but never less than fascinating collection.
In the past, despite the unimpeachable quality of his finest songs, one came to knew what to expect of Elvis Costello: many of the compositions on Imperial Bedroom and its successor Punch The Clock were grounded in sleight-of-hand wordplay and the throwaway semantics of romantic hurt.
Goodbye Cruel World compounded the theory that here was a man with nothing left to say: the more cynical amongst us saw his dalliance with The Pogues and backroom management of the Imp stable as ample evidence of creative debilitation. This LP should have been, had all the loose talk and embroidered rumour of Costello's heartaches and hangovers been true, a chronicle of a year on the skids. Either a bad record or a great howl of desperation. So much for critical theories. King Of America is neither. It is something entirely different.
If King Of America has a precedent, it would have to be the claustrophobic, grime-time scenarios of Trust, but where the latter's sense of guilty complicity and brooding menace spoke of the torture of love gone wrong, these songs possess a stoical calmness, a more measured but no less painfully revealing tone. In many ways King Of America concerns the burial of the old Elvis Costello and the rebirth of Declan MacManus. Gone, except for one track, are The Attractions, replaced by a bevvy of American session alumni including his friend, T-Bone Burnett, and the legendary James Burton, former guitar picker for Presley and Gram Parsons among others. King Of America shifts from one kind of song to another, any abiding sense of unity coming as much from the monochrome, but very effective traditional rock 'n' roll backing. On one level Costello/MacManus has redefined his identity by reverting to an older model. Indeed, parts of this record drip of Blonde On Blonde era Dylan — that grey, steely metallic sound that colours, but never intrudes on, the lyrics.
"Brilliant Mistake" is a startling opening salvo, with Costello railing against the empty heart of America over swirling Dylanesque electric organ and chiming guitars. "She said that she was working for the ABC news / it was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use" he mocks, as the shallow lifestyles of the idle rich are laid bare in a succession of scathing observations. "Lovable" — co-written with Cait O'Riordan from The Pogues — is a throwaway celebration of romance ("the toast of the town and the talk of the bedroom") and alongside the stomping "Glitter Gulch" and side two's cover of J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues," points to a mischievous, devil-may-care approach which comes as something of a surprise.
If Costello has allowed himself to relax and enjoy things more than usual, he has also consciously altered the way in which he approaches the time-honored topics of love and disillusion, mostly shedding those clever word games and too perfect metaphors which threatened to hijack inspiration for the sake of mere formula. The songs here range from the social observation of 'Little Palaces' — the most nakedly angry composition, concerning child beating and hypocrisy among "the sedated homes of England" — to the ambiguous, biographical fragments of "Suit Of Lights" (the death and rebirth of EC?) and "American Without Tears." Often the narrative voice will shift from the first person confessional to the detached view of the observer, making critical analysis very tricky but highlighting Costello's self-confident style and willingness to extend his range, even if it means leaping into the dark formally. Indeed "American without Tears" shifts effortlessly from the present to the past, comparing a personal sense of estrangement with the fate of World War II GI brides and utilising the evocative accordion of Jo-El Sonnier to create the perfect accompanying two-step. Like "Little Palaces," "Suit Of Lights" is stripped down, undiluted anger but for every instance of straighforward emotion — a line like "if it moves then you f... it / if it doesn't move then you stab it" — there are a welter of allusions and ambiguous imagery.
Both "Poisoned Rose" and "I'll Wear It Proudly" reek of the naked confessional broaching a place where the pop song seldom strays "I don't know how we came to grow into this very sad affair" mourns Costello during the former's resigned tale of enduring despair. "It's just you and me now cos I threw away the gin". At the core of both these songs is a strange exploration of love and shame, a kind of openly paraded crown of thorns worn by a soul tarnished with the weight of his emotional torment. Part bravado, part emotional exorcism, "I'll Wear It Proudly" is a startling evocation of profane love: "We are arms and legs / wrapped round more than my memory tonight / when the bell rang out and the air turned blue from fright / but in shameless moments you made more of me than just a mess / and a handful of eagerness / says: 'what do you suggest?'"
Compared to these messed-up hearts of darkness, the sarcastic asides of "Our Little Angel" with its buoyant countrified lift and the domestic disharmony of "Indoor Fireworks" — although it includes the chilling pay-off line "don't think for a minute dear that we'll ever be through / I'll build a bonfire of my dreams and burn a broken effigy of me and you" — seem positively mild-mannered.
"The Big Light" is a classic drinking song filled with hangover wisdom and one clever in-joke for C&W fans, whilst "Jack Of All Parades" is a very personal love song concerning the redemptive power of romance — a million miles away from the twisted terrain of yore. Finally there's "Sleep Of The Just," a fragmented dreamlike vignette which seems to concern soiled innocence in the form of a girl's misfortune at the hands of a soldier. Quite where "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" fits in here it's anyone's guess, but the sheer stylistic range — both in the kinds of songs tackled and the various compositional approaches employed — show Costello in a mood where anything goes. After a decade's experience that has seen him adapt many guises and utilise all kinds of music to create a shifting identity, perhaps the time had come to speak with a voice that was no-one's but his own. Maybe that's why the first Declan MacManus album is so straightforward and so complex.