Morristown Daily Record, May 4, 1986
The Best Of Elvis Costello & The Attractions /
"I was a fine idea at the time," sings Elvis Costello on his 12th album, "now I'm a brilliant mistake." And with that he writes an end to the first part of his career and sets off on Chapter Two.
Enigmatic and driven, not to mention prodigiously talented, Costello was the most significant artist to emerge from the punk rock ferment of a decade ago. But his career followed a distressing trajectory, peaking early and then veering off into uncertain stylistic experiments (first soul music, then country, then studio gadgetry). His most recent records fell back on slick pop production to cover the emptiness of songs like "Everyday I Write the Book" and "The Only Flame in Town."
The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions lays out the contrast neatly enough. Side one offers one classic after another: "Alison," "Watching the Detectives," "Pump It Up," "Accidents will Happen," "Radio, Radio" — songs that translate youthful anger into a compelling musical voice,
On side two, though, the material grows increasingly ornate, with memorable moments struggling to escape from the tangled wordplay and studio-fractured arrangements. Costello's talent is still in evidence, but his sense of purpose has vanished. The only song of real consequence here is "Shipbuilding," on which Clive Langer's bittersweet melody supports Costello's ironic comment on the economic and personal consequences of the Falklands war.
Clearly it was time for Costello to rethink his whole career. That's exactly what he's done, and King of America, his new album, is the gratifying result.
For starters, the album is credited to "The Costello Show," the songwriting and production to Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, Costello's real name. His longstanding backup band, the Attractions, perform on one cut; most of the playing is by American studio musicians, notably guitarist James Burton and several other alumni of Elvis Presley's '70s band. And the producer is Texas-born singer-songwriter T-Bone Burnett, who served as the opening act on Costello's solo tour of 1984.
The simplified musical values of that tour clearly influenced the sound of this record. Like the album Burnett produced for Marshall Crenshaw last year, King of America has the loose, spontaneous feel of a hot club session.
The songwriting is similarly basic, drawing on blues, rockabilly and especially country music. It reflects an Englishman's affection for basic American styles that Americans take for granted or ignore. And Costello seems more at home in those styles than be once did; "Our Little Angel," for instance, is a better country song than anything on his Nashville album, Almost Blue (though still a little oblique for George Jones: "You try to love her but she's so contrary / Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary").
As the title suggests, much of the album depicts an Englishman's confusion at encountering an America very different from the media image he brought over with him. In "American without Tears," if I understand the plot, Costello leaves his tour hotel room and meets a pair of transplanted Englishwomen, "GI brides," whose sense of dislocation and exile he shares. (Compare Squeeze's "Labelled with Love," which Costello produced.)
Other numbers offer relatively candid (for him) reflections on romantic obsession ("I'll Wear It Proudly") and marital discord ("Indoor Fireworks"). The latter is Costello's most touching song since "Alison."
Not that Costello's turned soft on us; he still can work up some bile when necessary. "Little Palaces" paints a series of grim English domestic scenes, to stark guitar and mandolin accompaniment; "Suit of Lights" startles with an unprintable expletive; and "Brilliant Mistake" includes this putdown: "She said she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use."
The album stalls briefly with the '50s-vintage "Eisenhower Blues" (a dull tune, however politically apt) and "Poisoned Rose," an overly elongated torch song. But it picks up again with "The Big Light," a comic hangover song that rocks like Elvis Presley's Sun sessions.
"Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood," Costello pleads on a deathly version of the Animals' oldie and in fact he's gone out of his way to make himself clear. The result is his best album since his first, and the best by anyone so far this year.
The Daily Record, May 4, 1986
Photo by Chalkie Davies.