Like many a too-clever Brit before him, Elvis Costello has more than once professed a healthy disdain for many things American, yet often seems to aspire to nothing more than being one. At times he'd have us believe he's merely a country-Western crooner or a soul-shouter trapped in an angry young Englishman's body.
That irony is hardly lost on Costello himself, as evidenced by the sly title of his new album — his first collection of original material to draw so thoroughly on basic, indigenous American strains of country, folk and blues.
There are strengths and drawbacks in his approach toward traditional material: He's too dry, too intellectual — maybe too English, if you will — to make you cry the way his Nashville idols might, but the subtle, dazzling wordplay he brings to the form is well worth the trade-off.
That King of America, co-produced by Costello with T-Bone Burnett, is a "rootsy" album shouldn't be taken to mean that he's slumming. Those who've thought that his recent albums were exceedingly dry, studied and dispassionate may not take much more of a liking to the songwriting here, a good deal of which is as obtuse and cryptic as anything he's done.
But context counts for a lot, and the overly fussy pop arrangements of Goodbye Cruel World have been replaced with a spare sound involving plenty of stand-up bass and Hammond organ and brushes and rim shots, with a little unobtrusive dobro or accordion here and there.
The vocal nakedness that often results seems a smart offshoot of Costello's memorable solo tour of a couple years back. Ballads like "Indoor Fireworks," which gets more mileage out of one incendiary metaphor than might be thought possible, and "Our Little Angel," addressed to a woman's next betrayer from her last one, sound alternately caressing and dangerous. The traditional minimalism of the arrangements is enticing even when the sentiments are oblique and alienating. When Costello's coldest lyrics combine with the warmest of all musical styles, it's an interesting collision.
It's almost a Mr. Spock-like battle between rationality and emotion that provides his most arresting musical moments, and in this alternately brilliant and aggravating LP — his best album since at least Imperial Bedroom, which the non-country material most closely resembles — the uneasy matchup has become externalized in the merger of word and style as well. Welcome to America, El.