Yes, dirt diggers, Elvis Costello does look more than a mite like death warmed up, (actually he resembles Dave Stewart on steroids) on the cover of this, his return to the long-playing record format. But, if you're expecting some dubious artefact in the "fucked-up observations of your terminally fucked-up rock star" genre, then go play your slimey voyeuristic speculation games on some other poor self-obsessed dupe's bleak terrain, Virginia. Because — ahem — beyond those glazed eyes and the rhinestone-indented crown of thorns, the contents of King Of America present us with a man quite adamantly not suffering from brewer's droop of the muse.
Yes, readers, this is easily his finest album, well, certainly since the halcyon mega conceits of Imperial Bedroom; in fact, in my opinion, KOA trounces that album to the point where it can square off, pretty much neck and neck alongside Get Happy!! as the perverse old bugger's finest waxing to date.
After the unfortunate over-achieving that riddled the contents of his last two addled projects, Costello has taken matters firmly in hand. Of the album's 15 songs, 12 are superb and the other three aren't totally indifferent. Meanwhile, as the election of T Bone Burnett as producer has proved to be a most providential manoeuvre, if only because Burnett clearly has an exact fix on exactly what this man and these songs require for maximum effect in all aesthetic regions.
Recorded strictly live in the studio with a variety of session pros (the principals range from Elvis Presley's TCB nucleus — Messrs Tutt, Scheff and the ubiquitous James Burton on guitar — plus Hall and Oates trojan rhythm section, as well as superb jazzbos Ray Brown and Earl Palmer), the album as a whole sounds remarkably cohesive, while Costello's formidable pipes have never sounded better. The accent is firmly slanted towards acoustic backdrops, allowing Costello's melodic prowess the breathing space that had been all but completely eroded by a prior fixation with twisting the music to sound more and more reflective of the lyrics' already well-warped perceptions.
This is all most welcome, because the lyrical thrust of KOA, although it's always rash to generalise about Costello's stream of verbiage, paces the listener through a remarkable shedding of skins, the bidding of fond farewells to a persona its creator now views as "a good idea at the time…. Now I'm a brilliant mistake." In part, the album publically lays to rest the spectre of "Elvis Costello" after nine years of living a life where finally "it becomes a force of habit / if it moves you fuck it, if doesn't move you stab it". The funeral scenario of "Suit Of Lights" — the only track featuring The Attractions — is clearly the public burial of "Elvis Costello, media invention," just as on the aforementioned "Brilliant Mistake," he in part exorcises the illusions of the dreams and success he has himself lived through.
Last year, Costello changed his name back, by deed poll, to Declan MacManus, and this becomes a central issue on King Of America. Once you latch on to this burial of enigmatic alter-egos, the ghost of Elvoid can be sighted "standing five-foot tall in his elevator shoes and stovepipe hat / he was known by several different names," walking disgustedly out of "Glitter Gulch," as well as making cameo appearances on several other tracks.
Declan MacManus, meantimes is alive and in steaming form; not exactly redeemed, but in matters of love and illusion, an older, wiser, and more compassionate figure. It's clearly MacManus, for instance, reminiscing about his grandfather and musing about WW2's GI brides on the wonderful "American Without Tears"; similarly it's MacManus portraying the officious soldier and his much coveted sister — the central characters of "Sleep Of The Just" — with great poignancy and not a little compassion.
Most striking, perhaps, is Declan MacManus recalling aspects of his Liverpudlian childhood in some ersatz Catholic ghetto that providers KOA with its most chillingly potent song, "Little Palaces." Here, a study of "the sedate homes of England" where "you knock the kids about a bit / because they've got your name / and you knock the kids about a bit / until they do the same" transcends time and location. The "little palaces" are everywhere throughout this unfriendly land of ours and hearing that voice, those extraordinary lyrics, you remember — God, Elvis Costello ne Declan MacManus, is still this blighted isle's finest songwriter, a force, who at his best, is simply beyond peer.
There are so many things I've not had a chance to mention: Ron Tutt's ricocheting percussion on "The Big Light," Ray Brown's immaculate double bass and Earl Palmer's sensuous brush-strokes on the wondrous "Poisoned Rose," Los Lobos' David Hidalgo's harmony vocal on "Lovable," Costello's own superb harmonies on "Brilliant Mistake," the excellence of songs like "I'll Wear It Proudly" and "Our Little Angel."
I could go on, but suffice to say, it's all in the proverbial grooves. Did Elvis Costello die, or was he pushed? And how will Patrick Aloysius MacManus, as he's credited here, cope with his newly opted-for anonymity?
All you have to do is listen. King Of America, along with Tom Waits' Raindogs, remains the only album in a coon's age that I can — without hesitation — recommend even the most poverty-stricken among you to purchase. The vinyl solution, indeed. So what are you waiting for?