Elvis Costello was the most important songwriter of England's new-wave scene of the late 1970s. Over the years, he has continued to be consistently important even though he has taken on many guises from the angry young rocker to the soul shouter to the country crooner to the Cole Porter of '80s pop-rock. Now he has sort of returned to the basics and assembled a tribute to American music. The result is perhaps his most remarkable album.
King of America is brilliant in its musical simplicity and lyrical imagery, from the opening cynical commentary on American life, "Brilliant Mistake," and his growling interpretation of J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues" to his understated, organ-and-marimba reading of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and the late-night bluesy jazz of "Poisoned Rose."
Gone are the fussy arrangements and often tongue-twisting wordiness of Costello's last two albums, which were as close as he has been to seeming unimportant. His clever way with words is still in evidence. He can rival Nashville's finest with such lines as "I'd rather be an outlaw than an in-law to you" (in "Glitter Gulch") and "I've seen the disappointment in her face / And the collection of engagement rings on her right hand / She sits alone apart from the crowd / In a white dress she wears like a question mark" (in "Our Little Angel").
The album owes much to Nashville in the bittersweet tone of its lost-love songs and its vintage rockabilly feel. Costello and coproducer T-Bone Burnett have skillfully used Elvis Presley's old rhythm section — drummer Ron Tutt and upright bassist Jerry Scheff — and his ace guitarist, James Burton, whose sweet dobro adds just the right touch on a pair of country-accented tunes.
Costello's own band, the Attractions, joins him on a couple of tunes, which evoke 1982's Imperial Bedroom (the last noteworthy album Costello made) but don't necessarily sound out of place here. Costello's singing continues to be passionate but unpolished, which is yet another spiritual connection with American blues, jazz, folk and country music that have seemingly inspired King of America.
Costello's voice remains an acquired taste, but pop-music listeners are not likely to hear another album in 1986 that contains so many richly written and exquisitely arranged songs.