When I said that I was I lying I might have been lying. — Elvis Costello
It's enough to make you think right now But you don't bother. — Declan MacManus
The King is dead. Long live the King.
As we feared, November's Best of collection was indeed Elvis Costello's epitaph. Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus' debut album, King of America (FC 40173), allays that fear by being better in many ways than anything MacManus ever recorded as Costello,. You can start your Best of '86 lists right here. Better yet, just go buy this record sometime before you die.
MacManus has divorced the Costello stage name, his wife of a decade and, apparently, his long-time band, The Attractions. He has reclaimed his given name (plus Aloysius for "all those years lost"), romantically engaged Pogues vocalist Celt O'Riorden and enlisted the talents of an assortment of players for King. Among the musicians who contributed are members of Elvis Presley's TCB Band.
He also has found another new producer in T-Bone Burnett, who ranks with Bob Rupe and Dave Edmunds as one of the finest boardmen in the business. Burnett was as much musical guru as sound technician to MacManus during the making of this record.
But who ever knows what's up with this guy except that he has trouble at airports (he was almost late for his Live Aid appearance after being detained in Russia, and on his last visit to Miami he was searched as a drug smuggler, he said) and a prolific proclivity for writing songs that add to England's bountiful treasure of literature.
All that matters, anyway, is what's on the vinyl — countrified-effective, raunchy smokehouse glory ("I'll Wear It Proudly"), wreckful TV-as-prostitute abandonment ("Glitter Gulch") and the empirical immolation, fanned by detailed description and mandolin, of all the little pink houses and, in effigy, all the kings of the invisible who "Knock the kids about a bit / Until they feel the same" in "Little Palaces."
The 15 songs on the LP were recorded in single takes, spicy but sparse, immediate but immaculate, loose but lucid. Vocally, they come from the wrenched gut through the life-burned lungs over the tale-tell heart of one of music's few true geniuses.
For example, in "Our Little Angel," his barroom-set tale of lust-lackers and turn-backers, MacManus' voice breaks on the heart-breaking delivery of the final line. A mistake like that is easily overdubbed, Had it been, the song would have been ruined.
While the former Costello's attempts at love songs were always more mental than sentimental, "Indoor Fireworks" is shattered, expired love unmasked in metaphor: "Don't think for a moment dear that we'll ever be through / I'll build a bonfire of my dreams / And burn a broken effigy of me and you."
Then we get to America. The Springsteen-Cougars of rock may not go for sissy intellectualizing, language legerdemain or subtlely complex instrumentation, but America needs a Brit wit like King MacManus to kick it in its musical can: "Now I don't speak any English / Just American without tears." That chorus is perfectly emphasized by French accordion, and "American Without Tears" is as much The Great American Novel as a pop song.
The obscure "Eisenhower Blues" is covered true-blues raved-up by Jazz studio stars Ray Brown and Earl Palmer with Tom Canning and Mitchell Froom. Burnett strokes the guitar line, and MacManus provides blasting vocals, including the stinging screams he used on earlier songs such as "The Deportees Club."
Brown's firm string-bass line and Canning's sensitive piano coloring gently underscore the plaintive ballad "Poisoned Rose," while The TCB Band and guitarist MacManus (credited as Little Hands of Concrete) shine in the face-the-dawn rocker "The Big Light."
The Attractions are together for one cut, "Suit of Lights." It's a chilling and thrilling story of the unappreciated performer. According to an interview in Musician magazine, it was inspired by a rude reception that MacManus' pub-musician father Pat once received: "He went out to work that night and wasted his breath / Outside there was a public execution / Inside he died a thousand deaths."
The complex and serious "Sleep of the Just" (incest? pornography?) lights the chastity cigarettes of all the Madonnas of the world: "He'll be tucked up in his bed tonight with his dirty-pictures girls / Saying `You're some mother's daughter you know or is it immaterial girl.'"
King of America also includes an inspired cover of The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and the romping "Lovable," which MacManus and lover O'Riordan co-wrote.
When Elvis Costello first appeared on Saturday Night Live (subbing for Sex Pistols) In the mid-'70s, all the pop-talkers had trouble with the name (Elvis, for God's sake!) and his nerdy appearance.
The cover of the new LP is nothing but a black-and-white portrait of a bearded and crowned Declan MacManus. Presley's former band is essential to the record. It's one of the most important albums you can buy.
A King is born.