New Musical Express, March 1, 1986

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The Mortician's Wax

Danny Kelly

The King Of America (Part Two): Declan MacManus guides Danny Kelly through the LP of his coronation. Elvis died for this...

"I have no position in pop now, I resigned my post. I'm not in competition with anyone. The best people are in a class of one, and I'm the best example of what I am...

"Compared to what else's going on today, it's a punk record..." Declan Macmanus — his hand on the plug of the life support system that keeps Elvis Costello alive — is selling me his beloved new LP.

"What do you think about King Of America?" I think it's largely wonderful; a vindication of two years out of the racks. It's your most talked about work since This Year's Model and your best since Imperial Bedroom... "That wouldn't be very hard..."

...and, in many ways, among Costello's now 11-deep canon, it's often different, sometimes unique...

Uniquely, it's downbeat, careful, almost monochrome. The playing — lots of it courtesy of Presley's old spars, the TCB (Taking Care Of Business) crew — is an object lesson in low-key virtuosity.

"I resisted the temptation to grandstand, to drive nails through people's heads. I didn't betray the songs... everything serves them...

"Differently, for the first time since Almost Blue at least, a Costello record moves with a traditional, timelessly American, tread, albeit one minutely flecked by wholemeal forms; country, Irish, and whispers of cajun, zydeco and Tex Mex.

"We eschewed the current production fascism which dictates that all drums have to sound like cannon fire, all tambourines have to sound like saxophones. and so on...

"But these songs aren't folk. I'd just seen two perfect hit singles by The Pogues fail because the radio doesn't play "folk." And they're like a punk group compared to one guy with an acoustic guitar,

"Anyway, I'm a pop writer...

"Uniquely, America's torrent of words are unambiguous. Well, as unambiguous as Costello's come. The patented baroque linguistic cardtricks are largely gone, replaced by a simultaneously discomforting — the shock of the new — and cockle-warming directness.

"A couple of years ago my writing was sort've short-circuiting and slipping into those wordplay things, at which I'm quite good. It was all becoming pretty glib — I thought I'd have to start using less words.

"There's not too many words... this is the clearest lyrical record I've ever made. I used the number that I needed..."

Uniquely, the new record is largely without wickedness, acrimony, spite, bile or spleen. It is devoid of acid.

"I took it out. I want King to be a more loving record than my usual. It sounds pompous but I want good critics to use words like "compassionate," "humane," "generous"...

Differently, for the first time since his debut in fact, Costello has cut himself away from the umbilical security of The Attractions.

"Obviously, I couldn't assume an emotional rapport with the new band. It was like a football team really; they stood around while I went through the songs, explaining everything — even my colloquialisms — to ensure that the meanings were clear. I was as honest with them as I could be...

"They came along with very few prejudices, very open-minded and hearted. They didn't say 'who's this weirdo, then?'..."

Uniquely, guitarist James Burton finds his often-wondrous, country-tinged playing twinkling with absurd ease behind the voice of a strange chap called Elvis... for the second time.

"In all honesty, I was just as thrilled to be playing with James because he'd worked with Gram Parsons! The good thing was that they talked about Elvis as a musician, just the singer in a band. They didn't have him up on some pedestal. After all the sleaze it was very pleasing to listen to people with fond memories, funny little stories to tell, y'know."

Did they take the piss? "Only joking asides... it wasn't as if I turned up wearing a gold lamé suit or acting weird..."

And very differently, a major pop writer is prepared, anxious even, to talk about his record without recourse to the usual battery of excuses, temperamentalities, get-outs and cosy generalities.

"I desperately want a fair hearing for this record, not to have people misread it... "Everything you don't understand on it is exactly what it appears to be..."

King Of America's pair of outright rockers ("Lovable" — "It's mostly straight, but isn't love tricky?" — and "Eisenhower Blues" — "a satirical blues, anyone who can't see why I recorded it is an idiot!") are self-explanatory, which leaves...

"Brilliant Mistake," opening proceedings and setting a sparkling standard for the rest of the LP, concerns itself with The Big Country.

"America? No place on earth has ever been based on such high principles, principles that have either been betrayed or used to beat people around the head with.

"This country, by comparison, has no constitutional morality yet people would still view America as being more unjust. But that's a huge argument, beyond the scope of this song. I simply chose three little scenes to illustrate America The Brilliant Mistake. It's not the last word... nothing on this record is the last word."

"You're not gonna do a thing to"... "Our Little Angel" is a country slide, a distanced view of a Costello mainstay, the coquette.

"It's just a story of a tease, a flirt tolerated by a bunch of hangers on, deflecting the more genuine feelings of ardent suitors. You know that scene, everybody does. It's small and trivial..."

And a close relative of "You Little Fool." "Ah, but that was a much sicker song..."

"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" — some bloody hope!

"Beneath The Animals' thuggish version, there was always another song in there. The reason I put it out as a single was to get across the very different sound of the LP. I have got some sympathy with the lyric, but not in any desparate way. Perhaps the voice misled people. I had a terrible throat that day, but I kind of liked the effect."

"Glitter Gulch" tackles the eat-your-own-shit-on-air-and-we'll-fly-you-to- Disneyland quiz-cum-torture shows.

"It's a throwaway song about throwaway culture. I didn't want to get all earnest about it... they're absurd and ludicrous, sure, but I didn't want to get all moralist about them. They present both laughable and tragic elements..."

Skeletal, almost unaccompanied, and America's second Rolls Royce, "Indoor Fireworks" is love on a tinderbox, sex its continual spark. It's one of the LP's most personal songs, the writer stripped bare.

"It is the saddest song on the record, and exactly what it appears to be."

What, even the line "it's time to tell the truth/ my fuse is burning out"?

A wink and a knowing laugh: "It's exactly what it appears to be..."

"Little Palaces," just agonised vocal, mandolin and acoustic bass, is a chilling, raw-powerful, verite vignette of inner city ills from lousy shoebox housing to savage violence against kids. Certainly one of the most expressive (and bitter) songs Costello's ever written, it may also emerge as one of his most problematic and controversial.

"Some people might even take offence because it's not waving the flag for the working class, but fuck it, there's plenty of others doing that already...

"It's a personal song, not sociological. My grandfather lived all his life in a house that was condemned, condemned from before The First World War 'til the day he died. But at least that place was solidly built — they knocked down many like it to build flats that were demolished 15 years ago because they were made with so little regard for human life that they turned into fucking shit. And if you put people into shit, they turn into shit too!

"But there's a falsehood in thinking people morally superior because of their background. All upper class people are not bastards, all coppers are not bastards, and all working class people are not good. Some of them are stupid and vicious.

"Alright, some of those are made to be stupid and vicious, but there's no fucking excuse when women are raped, when kids' heads get knocked in — they're stupid, brutal people."

After that little lot, and the profound resignation of "Fireworks," Wagner would come as light relief. Happily, then, Side One's closer, "I'll Wear It Proudly" another act of devotion, is a relief, welcome and (de)light(ful).

"It's the most straight forward love song I could write at this moment."

Straight forward? Even the line about gladly wearing the crown of "the King of Fools"?

"Well yes, it's a song in which I'm hiding nothing, qualifying nothing..."

Side Two shoves off with "American Without Tears," a companion piece to 'Brilliant Mistake'.

"It's basically a true story about two G.I. brides I met in the States. They were wonderful. They had it, and lots of it!

"In many ways, there's nothing worse than English people living in the USA, especially Los Angeles. They've all got Spinal Tap accents, terribly exaggerated South London accents like Mick Jagger, nowworrameen?

"The virulent anti-American racism in this country makes me sick and sad. That a country's foreign policy and an admittedly idiotic president can damn 200 million people is mad, utterly mad. Those ideas — that they're all stupid and have too much money — are just crap!

"People now tell me that it's got political overtones, that the song's about cultural imperialism, but... it's simply that there are people who go there, accept, and are accepted."

The achingly beautiful "I'll Wear It Proudly" is country enough to have made Almost Blue, but it's crafted by veteran jazzers like string bassist Ray Brown.

"I was very nervous, intimidated almost, about working with Ray and those guys. Their musical stories are all Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, so you start to wonder what the hell you're doing there, whether you're up to it. You start to have nightmares that you're just indulging some faddish whim...

"The song, again, is what it seems, a love song. Pain doesn't always have to be major, crushing, pain — it can be like picking up something beautiful, a rose, and getting it stuck in your hand..."

Costello's repeated recent denials of a boozelogged 1985 render "The Big Light" less sodden with meaning than might have been the case.

"Yeah", he laughs "you were waiting to hear how I wrote it in the Betty Ford Clinic! It's like a humorous Merle Haggard song made special by the Las Vegas playing!

"Hangovers are just a trivial matter, until the few hours when you've got 'em. Then it's a matter of life and fuckin' death!"

""Jack Of All Parades" is totally straightforward, another simple love song."

Come off it, it seems choked with images weighing Personal Happiness against Fame...

"All those theories about the rigours of fame and all that are overblown. Obviously there are some wasted opportunities and squandered emotions in there, but they're..." he strikes his breast (Catholic public confession style), "through my fault, through my own fault..."

Oh don't let's start all that.

"Suit Of Lights" more than once bears the line "I went to work last night, and wasted my breath". The song has been widely interpreted (ironically, it's the LP's sole employment for The Attractions) as Macmanus's murder weapon in The Case Of The Missing Bespectacled Pop Star.

'To an extent, that's true. A suit of lights? They're those incredibly gaudy, dazzling, uniforms matadors wear. But they hide and obscure things too. Like an Elvis Costello mask "...

Declan Macmanus got tired of his suit of lights, tired of going to work each night and wasting his breath.

"Sleep Of The Just" — a lilting Poguesian air, armed with an inbuilt sideswipe at Madonna — closes King Of America with a suitable flourish. It's the second side's fourth ace, this resurrectional record's ninth in all.

"It's a construction from an actual event. The opening verse happened to me, but not the rest. It's just a little story about morally superior prigs. This one — a soldier, by coincidence — thinks he's better than his nude model sister. It's a parable, about pride, about pomposity..."

"So what do you think about the record?"

Boggle-eyed, brilliant, flawed, slightly unhinged, free of the sharpened elbows of its predecessors so you can cuddle up to it if you want. And I do, though I'll leave close encounters with Macmanus himself to braver souls. Oh, the record? America The Beautiful!...

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New Musical Express, March 1, 1986

Danny Kelly interviews Elvis Costello (continued from February 22.)


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Clipping and page scan.

Photo by Derek Ridgers.
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1986-03-01 New Musical Express cover.jpg


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