Elvis Costello, self-proclaimed King of America, is pictured on this album cover wearing a jeweled crown, staring back at his subjects with an imperious gaze. Maybe this is Costello's idea of self-deprecating parody. Maybe he's not kidding. When it comes right down to it, his highness' latest record shows a command of — if not sovereignty over — American rock, blues, folk, country and hybrids thereof.
King is a 15-track collection of live studio sessions, Costello's first album in 18 months and his second venture into the world of American music. In contrast to the country fare on 1981's Almost Blue, however, these songs stand up as more than mere curiosities of Americana.
Some of Costello's verse dangles awkwardly and sometimes his imagery glares and jars instead of entices. But the music definitely has its moments. An impressive guest-artist roster — guitarist James Burton, drummer Ron Tutt and bassist Jerry Scheff (former backup players for Elvis Presley), Hall & Oates bassist T-Bone Wolk, drummers Earl Palmer and Jim Keltner and Los Lobos vocalist David Hidalgo — helps Costello dip deep into America's musical melting pot. His unmistakable tenor — at times tender, at times bitter and ironic — gives the album cohesion and its best tracks staying power.
A cover of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and a ragged version of "Eisenhower Blues" add flavor to the stew. The remaining cuts are E.C. originals, including opener "Brilliant Mistake," a beautiful confluence of sad words and shuffling folk-rock.
If everything else here matched "Mistake," King of America would be a Costello masterpiece, but it isn't. The galloping country-rocker "The Big Light" (probing the painful essence of a hangover) is the only other cut that connects with quite the same power. Costello's usual bittersweet lyrics about romance and politics sometimes stumble from pathos into bathos, as on the torch song "Poisoned Rose." And sometimes the lyrics just don't fit the setting, as on the up-tempo "Lovable."
But as with any Costello album, this music grows on you the more you listen. King of America is Costello's most thoughtful exploration of American music yet.