It's not enough that Declan MacManus years ago usurped the first name in rock-and-roll and began calling himself Elvis Costello. Now, for much of his 12th album, he's gone and stolen Elvis Presley's band.
It was a great move; guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, and drummer Ron Tutt, the core of Presley's '70s group, offer sparkle and authenticity on the rockabilly, country and blues tunes that dominate the record. But the similarities keep rolling before Costello sings a word. Elvis Presley was often referred to simply as the "King." Costello expresses no fealty here. The title of the album: King of America.
The line appears in the album's opening song, "Brilliant Mistake." The tune is a microcosm of what has made Costello one of the most compelling creative forces in Anglo-American rock during the last 10 years.
Its melody is achingly simple, custom-made to whistle while you walk. Costello's singing is gently hoarse, laden with emotional complexity; in the same line, he Ping-Pongs between sarcasm and yearning.
When his ire is aroused, Costello takes no prisoners. in "Brilliant Mistake," we meet one of the many gorgeous but callow women who've populated his songs over the years. "She said that she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use." Yet his contempt doesn't spare him from feelings of anguish. In the song's best image, he sings of trying to "watch this hurtin' feeling disappear / Like it was common sense."
Wrenching sadness of that sort permeates the album. "Poisoned Rose" teeters in style between Ray Charles' blues and Costello idol George Jones' country twang. (The two elements are represented by jazzman Ray Brown on bass and the pianist Tom Canning, who plays with the spare efficiency of Nashville's Floyd Cramer.) The song is full of bleak eroticism The "poisoned rose" was a gift that "left me half-alive, and half in ecstasy."
"Indoor Fireworks," recorded recently by Nick Lowe, and "Little Palaces" both focus on relationships that either are or ought to be disintegrating; the latter is especially effective at communicating claustrophobic rage. With no more accompaniment than Scheff's string bass and Costello's mandolin, Costello takes us deep into "the kingdom of the invisible," where "you knock the kids about a bit because they've got your name / and you knock the kids about a bit / until they feel the same."
Not all of the album is so downbeat. Burton, Scheff and Tutt make one wish that Elvis the First had stuck around long enough to sing songs by Elvis the Second such as the irrepressible "Glitter Gulch" or the besotted, defiant "The Big Light."
There are two compelling covers here: J.B. Lenoir's obscure but amusing "Eisenhower Blues," which features T-Bone Burnett on guitar, and the Animals' classic "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," played and sung with a controlled tension that nearly matches that of the original.
Besides Presley's sidemen, Costello is joined by numerous other musicians, including T-Bone Wolk from Hall and Oates' band, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, who adds harmony on the so-stirring-it's-nearly-manic "Lovable."
And what of Costello's own band, the Attractions? They're intact on but one song "Suit of Lights," but they make it count, giving the kind of rollicking edge that the Band used to give Bob Dylan on a song that clearly echoes Dylan's mid-'60's poetry-in-motion style.