New Musical Express, February 22, 1986

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Crown Duels

The Costello Show / King Of America

Sean O'Hagan

In brocade and jewelled crown, Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus stares out from the sleeve of King Of America, his beard and spectacles framing an unsmiling face. The image is both ridiculous and deadly serious, neatly encapsulating – consciously or otherwise – the maverick terrain of this uneven but never less than fascinating collection.

In the past, despite the unimpeachable quality of his finest songs, one came to knew what to expect of Elvis Costello: many of the compositions on Imperial Bedroom and its successor Punch The Clock were grounded in sleight-of-hand wordplay and the throwaway semantics of romantic hurt.

Goodbye Cruel World compounded the theory that here was a man with nothing left to say: the more cynical amongst us saw his dalliance with The Pogues and backroom management of the Imp stable as ample evidence of creative debilitation. This LP should have been, had all the loose talk and embroidered rumour of Costello's heartaches and hangovers been true, a chronicle of a year on the skids. Either a bad record or a great howl of desperation. So much for critical theories. King Of America is neither. It is something entirely different.

If King Of America has a precedent, it would have to be the claustrophobic, grime-time scenarios of Trust, but where the latter's sense of guilty complicity and brooding menace spoke of the torture of love gone wrong, these songs possess a stoical calmness, a more measured but no less painfully revealing tone. In many ways King Of America concerns the burial of the old Elvis Costello and the rebirth of Declan MacManus. Gone, except for one track, are The Attractions, replaced by a bevvy of American session alumni including his friend, T-Bone Burnett, and the legendary James Burton, former guitar picker for Presley and Gram Parsons among others. King Of America shifts from one kind of song to another, any abiding sense of unity coming as much from the monochrome, but very effective traditional rock 'n' roll backing. On one level Costello/Macmanus has redefined his identity by reverting to an older model. Indeed, parts of this record drip of Blonde On Blonde era Dylan — that grey, steely metallic sound that colours, but never intrudes on, the lyrics.

"Brilliant Mistake" is a startling opening salvo, with Costello railing against the empty heart of America over swirling Dylanesque electric organ and chiming guitars. "She said that she was working for the ABC news / it was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use" he mocks, as the shallow lifestyles of the idle rich are laid bare in a succession of scathing observations. "Lovable" — co-written with Cait O'Riordan from The Pogues — is a throwaway celebration of romance ("the toast of the town and the talk of the bedroom") and alongside the stomping "Glitter Gulch" and side two's cover of J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues," points to a mischievous, devil-may-care approach which comes as something of a surprise.

If Costello has allowed himself to relax and enjoy things more than usual, he has also consciously altered the way in which he approaches the time-honored topics of love and disillusion, mostly shedding those clever word games and too perfect metaphors which threatened to hijack inspiration for the sake of mere formula. The songs here range from the social observation of 'Little Palaces' — the most nakedly angry composition, concerning child beating and hypocrisy among "the sedated homes of England" — to the ambiguous, biographical fragments of "Suit Of Lights" (the death and rebirth of EC?) and "American Without Tears." Often the narrative voice will shift from the first person confessional to the detached view of the observer, making critical analysis very tricky but highlighting Costello's self-confident style and willingness to extend his range, even if it means leaping into the dark formally. Indeed "American without Tears" shifts effortlessly from the present to the past, comparing a personal sense of estrangement with the fate of World War II GI brides and utilising the evocative accordion of Jo-El Sonnier to create the perfect accompanying two-step. Like "Little Palaces," "Suit Of Lights" is stripped down, undiluted anger but for every instance of straighforward emotion — a line like "if it moves then you f... it / if it doesn't move then you stab it" — there are a welter of allusions and ambiguous imagery.

Both "Poisoned Rose" and "I'll Wear It Proudly" reek of the naked confessional broaching a place where the pop song seldom strays "I don't know how we came to grow into this very sad affair" mourns Costello during the former's resigned tale of enduring despair. "It's just you and me now cos I threw away the gin". At the core of both these songs is a strange exploration of love and shame, a kind of openly paraded crown of thorns worn by a soul tarnished with the weight of his emotional torment. Part bravado, part emotional exorcism, "I'll Wear It Proudly" is a startling evocation of profane love: We are arms and legs / wrapped round more than my memory tonight / when the bell rang out and the air turned blue from fright /but in shameless moments you made more of me than just a mess / and a handful of eagerness / says: 'what do you suggest?'

Compared to these messed-up hearts of darkness, the sarcastic asides of "Our Little Angel" with its buoyant countrified lift and the domestic disharmony of "Indoor Fireworks" — although it includes the chilling pay-off line "don't think for a minute dear that we'll ever be through / I'll build a bonfire of my dreams and burn a broken effigy of me and you" — seem positively mild-mannered.

"The Big Light" is a classic drinking song filled with hangover wisdom and one clever in-joke for C&W fans, whilst "Jack Of All Parades" is a very personal love song concerning the redemptive power of romance — a million miles away from the twisted terrain of yore. Finally there's "Sleep Of The Just," a fragmented dreamlike vignette which seems to concern soiled innocence in the form of a girl's misfortune at the hands of a soldier. Quite where "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" fits in here it's anyone's guess, but the sheer stylistic range — both in the kinds of songs tackled and the various compositional approaches employed — show Costello in a mood where anything goes. After a decade's experience that has seen him adapt many guises and utilise all kinds of music to create a shifting identity, perhaps the time had come to speak with a voice that was no-one's but his own. Maybe that's why the first Declan Macmanus album is so straightforward and so complex.

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New Musical Express, February 22, 1986


Sean O'Hagan reviews King Of America (reprinted in Juke, March 15).


Danny Kelly interviews Elvis Costello (concluded in the March 1 issue.)


A two-page ad for King Of America appears on pages 24-25.

Images

1986-02-22 New Musical Express page 27 clipping 01.jpg 1986-02-22 New Musical Express photo 02 dr.jpg
Photos by Derek Ridgers.


A date without Elvis


Danny Kelly

Elvis is dead. Long live the King Of America. Danny Kelly turns up at Elvis Costello's funeral, but finds the coffin bare and the spirit risen. From Stiff to Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus.

1986-02-22 New Musical Express page 36.jpg

How very, very odd. It's the morning of February 14 and my barely-opened eyes are staring at the floor beneath my letterbox. There, a conspicuously bare square of mat squats where my usual, and confidently anticipated, avalanche of Valentines should be.

Never mind — a mental shrug — they'll be along with the second post. But still, it's a poor start to a day I fully expect to get progressively worse, the day I come face to face with Elvis Costello...

Y'see, four weeks ago I reviewed Costello's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" 45, his first real release for two years or more. Shocked by the cut's numbing negativity, by the bloodshot shambles of Costello's voice, by fleeting glimpses of him around London last summer and autumn, and by the grimly persistent rumours that circulate about him, I lambasted both the record and its creator.

Abandoning the distanced consideration of the unbiased commentator in favour of the frenzied lather of the wits-end fan, I accused the erstwhile main Attraction of letting a shifting-sands personal life and an overdeveloped fondness for the bottled bravura wither his prodigious talent. I numbered the single as an abdication, a disowning of his past, and wondered — though I prayed otherwise — if it marked the beginning of the end, artistically, for one of the greats.

Events since then have snowballed with eyeblink rapidity. Within hours of the review's publication, an indignant, bemused and apparently intrigued Costello was on the hotline, demanding a session on the couch with NME's newly installed cut-price psychiatrist. Three days later he appeared on The Tube looking and sounding, by recent standards especially, remarkably healthy, alert and upful.

The slight sense of queasiness this apparition installed in me became full scale ashen-faced panic when, a few days before the scheduled shrink-in, a tape of El's new LP became wedged in my Walkman. King Of America is not one, but a whole series of departures for Costello, seems highly unlikely to have been the work of a clapped out, self-destructive drunk, and is, splutter, his best stuff for years.

The sickly tang of humble pie filled my mouth, the bitter aroma of sackcloth and ashes my nostrils, then, as I trudged to our appointed rendezvous — nobody steps lightly to their own funeral, to their very own St Valentine's Day Massacre.

But be brave — he could turn out to be a stark staring fruitcake after all, his cracking new record a fluke, couldn't he? Couldn't he??

THIS LAST suck-thumb crumb of comfort is given a considerable boost as the door of Costello's publisher's office swings open. There he sits, blackly regaled in a calf-length frock coat, a matching top hat on the table before him. A punk funeral director? The Pope Of Pop demoted to monsignor? It's hardly the street clobber of Joe Normal, anyway. is it? But pogoing to conclusions landed me in this mess in the first place, so I'll reserve judgement, keep cool.

Or at least as cool as is possible once I realise that Elvis is not alone, that the latest resident in the warm part of his much-rended heart — The Pogues' angular bassist, Cait O'Riordan — is a distinctly chilly presence in the corner. You know how it is — call someone a devil-worshipping child-eater and they'll laugh it off... It's their brother/mother/husband/girlfriend that stabs you in some dimlit backalley. Maybe that's why he's sporting the undertaker's togs. But, thankfully, Cait departs to search shoes and Elvis settles tensely into a sofa.

We've still hardly spoken when suddenly, the depths of his voluminous black leather Gladstone bag, he pulls, like a rabbit from a magician's hat, a large bottle of very expensive whiskey. "I thought we'd get through this during the interview..

A two second eternity crawls by. He — still nervous — cackles hopefully. I —still (more) nervous —do not. Oh, I see, it's a joke. The dull thud of a terminally earthbound lead balloon is heard nearby.

We'd better start.

ELVIS COSTELLO desperately wants to talk about his new LP— it's very important to him— but that comes later. For now he's getting something off his chest.

"I found your review hysterical, in both senses of the word. I found it psychotic! I was very worried about your mental health Well thanks very much I'm sure, but.. "It betrayed more of your neuroses than mine... you don't even know me! Someone wished me luck with this interview. I don't think it's me that needs the luck. "I wasn't hurt by it. If anything it will have made lots of people curious about the record. Constantly being told how good someone is gets to be a pain the arse."

These generalised, ego-salving disavowals are issued in a calm, almost detatched, manner. The hairy-palmed ravings of my bleakest scenarios to memory. Let's get more specific.

Costello alternates gulped mouthfuls of coffee and Perrier, but the word has been around months now that he's more inclined, significantly more inclined, towards harder stuff By the bucketful. "I've really no idea how people get that impression," he begins, comically wide-eyed with incredulity, "… maybe they're drunk!"

Alright, have you had a drink problem recently?

"It's like the terrible old joke— I have no drink problem; I drink, I fall down, no problem! I can drink quite a lot, but I don't think it's a problem. I am told, though, that the most alarming rumours circulate about me."

Two-bottles-a-day-alarming, to be precise.

"That must just be people he laughs, arms spread wide in a of wonderment, "trying to rationalise the fact that you're not who they expect or want you to it's their neuroses, not mine. — The ludicrous irony is that The Attractions and I were one of the most notorious drinking and indulging bands going, and we got away with it. We had haloes while everybody else had those drug fiend, the, low-life images. We were much weirder than any of those punk groups, then we all stopped. So in fact you're five years too late.

"Every couple of weeks or I still go on a binge and get smashed. But big drinkers? Fuckin' big deal! You're a long time dead. .."

Message 'received' ; I'll take a raincheck on 'Understood'. This might be Elvis Costello (shambling wreck of this parish) on a good day; he might also, methinks, be protesting too much or with the zeal of the newly converted, whatever. What's beyond denial is that he looks mightily better than last year's model, a permapissed blob of perspiring plasticine.

"Yeah, but I do go up and down. Alcohol is a debilitating pastime. It's like if someone takes a picture of you after your three week annual holiday binge, you're not going to look your best. "I never actually said I was in the competition to be a pin-up. I 'm a celebrity of sorts whether I like it or not, so my appearance is important... So if I get fucked up by being on a spree a couple of weeks …

“But in my line of work, if you drank all the drinks, and took all the drugs you were offered, you would die. Simple as that.

“Look, in eight years, I had three weeks holiday. So now I have six months without the physical rigours of the road, and I don’t look my best. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fucking business if I look like shit. I have to face myself in the morning, not them! Then you think, Fuck it, I’d better get back into shape. Also, you just get fed up of the headaches.”

He’s high on self-defence now, so with Cait still on the loafers rail, I’ll push on. The advent of the prettiest (no prizes) Pogue in Costello’s affection zone, and the trauma generally associated with such arrivals, is another commonly proffered reason for both Costello’s lengthy absence, and his poor shape. “When I’m not working,” he frowns, “people should keep their fucking noses out of my life, y’know.”

That’s indisputably true. But I still want to know.

He leans back, staring at the ceiling with an expression he’s borrowed from Job. “Just let me say this to dispel the rumours. My Life Is Great, Official! I don’t want to get into a confessional interview, y’know, like Andy Summers’ ‘Sex Keeps Me Fit At Forty’ type bullshit, but at the same time I can’t pretend that certain things aren’t going on. So, as I say, life is great.

In fact, any bad shape I might have appeared to have been in was as likely to have been the result of having to much of a good time.”

AH YES, mention of people having too much of a good time brings us, with a neatness not normally associated with them, to The Pogues. Costello’s relationship with those rum sodomists – his role as producer complicated by his dalliance with Cait – is yet another gushing geyser of gleeful gossip. The sessions that spawned ‘Rum, Sodomy And The Lash’ were characterised, the stories insist, by vitriolic animosity between band and knob-twiddler.

“Groups like The Pogues, groups that are in a class of their own – like the Pistols, from what we hear – can be very cruel, and The Pogues are terribly cruel to one another. When I’m about, the cruelty just transfers to me.”

It’s an answer typical of this Elvis Costello. Neat, tidy, squeaky clean behind its ears. But its ‘no problem’ nonchalance doesn’t quite fit the facts. When, soon after the launch of ‘Rum’, I questioned Shane and Spider Pogue about their producer, the silence was thick as Guinness and accompanied by much staring at feet. Either something was being shiftily avoided or Costello’s a thief with a fetish for shoelaces!

And the tales of bad blood and personal abuse of EC – real nasty stuff – continue to simmer away merrily, maliciously.

The explanation, part two: “There’s a kind of deprecatory humour between us. They say irreverent things about me which other people find shocking, thinking they should be more respectful. But why the fuck should they?

“If Shane takes the piss out of me for being an old fart or whatever, I ask him how many references to death, rain and canals does his next song have? That’s the way Nick Lowe used to deal with us. The studio process is very boring, and that kind of humour helps people to not take it all so fucking seriously.”

There he goes again, see, a ready rationalisation always effortlessly to hand. A place for everything and…

The answers come easily, almost too easily. It’s a bit like talking to one of those manically moronic Blue Peter presenters who, just at the alchemic moment when two egg boxers and a coathanger are to become a fully functioning pocket computer, reach down with practised card-sharp dexterity, and produce the magically finished item. I have one here that I prepared a little earlier.

Quite.

Yes, Elvis, actually there is one more thing before we get ‘round to the record, one more thing that demands clarification.

Open a copy of Nutty Boys; The Rock Hack’s Guide to DIY Psychology and there it is, Chapter Five: Identity Crises.

Get this; the words ‘Elvis Costello’ appear nowhere on ‘King Of America’. The spine – the sleeve itself maintaining a deathly hush – credits the record to something called The Costello Show. The songs are written, seemingly, by the firm of Declan, Patrick, Aloysius, and Macmanus (Costello was christened Declan Patrick Macmanus, the Aloysius is a more recent addition). And the inner bag throughout tags the vocalist/guitarist as LHC, The Little Hands Of Concrete.

Add to this his other lives as The Imposter and as a Coward Brother, and the notion – in that much abused dissection of ‘Misunderstood’ – of a frantic, perhaps irreversible, hacking away of the Costello past, doesn’t see, quite so hysterical.

“There’s nothing suspicious there either,” begins the man in the clerics robes, wet-blanketing madly, “no drama. The losing of my name is just a little device to remind people that there was always a human being behind the funny glasses. For the first few records it was such an effective guise, a smokescreen for insecurities and a cover for the public learning process that was forced on me. But then I found that people couldn’t rid themselves of their preconceptions and kept looking for things on the later records that just weren’t there.

“Elvis Costello became more and more a character that I played because people wouldn’t let him grow up. And so…”

A silence charged with possibility hangs in the space left by the fading away of that last sentence. And so… what? The grinning figure opposite is enjoying his drum-roll dramatic climax, watching me squirm to the unavoidable, hold-the-front-page conclusion. Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus has, face it, killed Elvis Costello.

Like all those unhinged, disbelieving souls outside Gracelands nine years ago, I brace myself and mumble the unthinkable. Is Elvis … really … dead? “In some senses … YES.”

In some senses? What does that mean? It is a death certificate or a stay of execution, suspended animation or premature burial. We have no way of knowing, no power to intervene; all that’s up to … what the hell do I call him now? Declan?

“Call me what you like.”

Right then, Dec it is, like the bloke from The Bachelors who doesn’t pay his TV licence fee. But Dec, you know where all this is leading, you know that this mid –career identity-hopping can be taken as a sign of instability – derangement even – in musicians.

Sure, cute and clever David Robert Jones of Brixton, London, always knew exactly where the fantasy/reality lines were drawn between himself and Ziggy Stardust, but that coin has another darker side too. Think of Sly Stone maybe (like the dearly departed Costello, a compositional giant), distracted and eventually destroyed by the war between his Sly/Sylvester Stewart alter egos.

I’m winding him up, and for the first time this Valentine’s afternoon, Declan Macmanus sneers. It is a sneer unshakably convinced of its own sanity. “That’s over-reading things and taking them too seriously again. In many cases, people’s psychoses are not an accident but induced by drugs. Sly Stone brought all that shit on himself.

“David Crosby too. Even his best friends admit he’s a hopeless case. Some people are like that, they will kill themselves. Plenty of foolish people do it every day, and lots of people get seriously upset about them, when there’s much more deserving people dying every day for much more terrible and stupid reasons. The ones who waste their lives are just brats…”

AND THEN, somewhere in the head behind the there-but-for-the-grace sneer, an alarm sounds. The shrink session – always a pricey business – is over. He’s ready to move on.

“What do you think of ‘King Of America’?”

Now it’s my turn to stall, to play for time. After all that’s gone on here today, I cannot blithely answer that question. Having been called ‘psychotic’, having been laughed at by a man called Little Hands Of Concrete and dressed like Nigel Hawthorne in The Barchester Chronicles, and having learned that the great Elvis Costello has been exiled – or worse – by the upstart King Of America, I need time to think. We’ll talk about the record next week…

I arrive home – scribblingly noting those vital first hand impressions, impressions not born of rumour or gossip, of the new king – to find, to my utter amazement, the square yard of mat still mockingly devoid of Valentines.

Costello/Macmanus, I scribble, is in far better physical fettle than for some considerable time, displaying no obvious signs of untoward cravings or excessive system abuse. Admittedly, he could just be a good actor, pulling himself together sufficiently to convincingly busk his way through a potentially awkward interface, but he does appear to be in pretty good mental trim.

On most of the charges levelled against him then, we give this opinionated, mercurial prickly enigma, this practising – and mostly getting it right – genius, the benefit of the considerable doubt.

Which, with regard to my offending review, leaves only one question naggingly unanswered. Is Elvis Costello/Declan Macmanus really such a vindictive bastard that he’s actually kill my postman?

NEXT WEEK: Two Elvises! The making of ‘King Of America’ and Dec’s track by track lowdown…





Photo by Derek Ridgers.
1986-02-22 New Musical Express photo 01 dr.jpg


1986-02-22 New Musical Express page 24-25 advertisement.jpg
Two-page ad for King Of America.


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Page 36-37 composite.


1986-02-22 New Musical Express page 27.jpg1986-02-22 New Musical Express page 37.jpg
Pages 27 and 37.


1986-02-22 New Musical Express cover.jpg 1986-02-22 New Musical Express page 42 clipping.jpg
Cover and clipping.

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