Call this one Elvis Is Back, same name as the great post-Army Presley disc. Except that this one proclaims itself a "Costello Show" production on the liner, emceed by one Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus, once again his legal tag. After two records of just plain diddling around, Elvis Cougar-Mellencamp sloughs off about 12 layers of stale wedding cake.
Thank McManus's Ed McMahon here, T-Bone Burnett. He probably knows more about baseball than any other born-again Christian ever to go on the road with Bob Dylan, and he also knows how to tell Elvis gently when he's filigreeing the inside of a thimble rather than adding a meaningful detail. Costello's new drinking buddy and co-producer influenced E's decision to put the Attractions mainly on hold; enlisted on various things here are the King of America's TCB Band (Elvis Presley backups Jerry Scheff, Ron Tutt, and James Burton), jazz guy Ray Brown, Hall and Oates sidemen even, and — Jesus — Jim Keltner. Yet all of their playing is tightly smushed together into a fistful of American vernacular sounds, always at the service of Costello's voice.
That's voice, not lyrics, meaning Elvis doesn't outsmart himself nary a once on King, so far as I can tell; there's nothing about "the fag ends of the aristocracy" to discommode you on these 15 tunes. And if thanks go out to T-Bone, say a silent almsgiving as well to Mr. Mel Torme. Once Costello tried on Gram Parsons's cowboy hat, and later he assumed Torme's mentholated method to as little result. But damned if on such numbers as "Our Little Angel" and "The Big Light" he doesn't sound like the Velvet Fog in Sun Studios, and damned if he doesn't sound great. The songs are more pointed, the words never outracing the meaning the way they have on the last two albums. "Brilliant Mistake" and "American Without Tears" show how learning about America from the movies can fuck you up; "Suit of Lights" considers death, a life of hard labor, and Merle Haggard. Yet the themes are ultimately secondary, bowing to the flutterings of his uvula. On a record of unfalteringly good lyric writing ("Indoor Fireworks"!), the out-there shouts on the cover of J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues" are as gratifying. He's always had a mouth almighty. Percy Dovetonsils here hacks them up like never before.