Is Elvis dead?
Elvis Costello, that is. By all appearances, the one-time prince of postpunk/new wave music (or whatever you want to call it) is dropping his old stage nom de plume and resorting back to the one mama and papa gave him — namely, Declan Patrick MacManus.
He's being very coy about it, mind you. On his new album, King of America, he leaves his old name off most places on the album, except on that little narrow strip on the side and on the label, where the band is referred to as "The Costello Show (featuring Elvis Costello)." Elsewhere, there seems to be an abundance of this fellow MacManus' name.
None of this, though, is half as interesting as what goes on between the grooves on King of America, though there certainly is a relationship between the music and Elvis'/Declan's emerging persona.
There are several musical currents running through King — some of your basic Elvis Costello, some updated '60s stuff, some downhome blues. But the main current here is a decided country/folk one, though that shouldn't surprise anyone who's listened to Costello's Almost Blue LP, an excellent homage to the George Jones school of country music.
King is nowhere as twangy; its approach is generally more traditional. "Little Palaces," for instance, is primarily a set piece for mandolins played with a near-Irish tempo. And in "Lovable," he tosses in a basic rock sensibility that keeps it from being too Nashville-ish.
The main thing that keeps Costello/MacManus from being confused with other country songwriters, though, is his incredibly keen wit and how he parlays it into his lyrics. While country songwriters are mostly noted for a straightforward style, Costello is a latter-day James Joyce in comparison — an abundance of puns, counterpoint and remarkable insight, plus the usual Costello twists of the knife.
That's true of all the songs on King, not just the country tunes. And to be perfectly honest, most of those other cuts are the album's highlights.
Indeed, some of them are veritable classics, reminiscent of Costello's finest album, Get Happy — mature, witty, thoughtful, and great melodies. "Brilliant Mistake," "I'll Wear it Proudly" and "American Without Tears" prove once again what people who've followed Elvis Costello these years have always known — that he's one of the greatest songwriters ever. No matter whether he's known as Elvis Costello or Declan MacManus.
So, the prince of postpunk is dead. Long live the King.