With Elvis Costello's new album, King of America (Columbia Records), comes not only a new name, but also a new image. Elvis is dropping his pseudonym and returning to Declan Patrick MacManus. And with the departure of his former sidekicks, the Attractions (except for one track), this album's attributed to "The Costello Show," as strings of posters for the vigorously publicized effort proclaim all over New York. The image: an album cover in demure black and white, a far cry ham 1980's colorful Get Happy motif, shows a bearded Costello sporting wire-framed spectacles instead of the whimsical Buddy Holly frames of yore, looking tired, slightly bitter, but determined.
What's more important is King of America's new pared-down version of Elvis' genius. The album cover photo and the new style can be regarded as visions of a post-holocaust Elvis Costello, coming out as the dust settles after his last two bombs, Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock.
King of America features sounds that harken less to the darker side of pop, as these did, than to the roots of rock and roll, rockability, blues, and that irrepressible Costello country and western obsession. Instruments are simpler — acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, bass, and drums, with occasional appearances from organ and accordian. The Confederates, his accompanists, include James Burton, Jerry Scheff and Ron Tutt, former back-ups for Costello's namesake and "King," Elvis Presley. In many ways, they have as much to do with the distinctive throw-back tone of the album as does the producer, T. Bone Burnett.
Costello/MacManus seems to be ridding himself of the glitter and show-biz which characterized some of the more over-done songs of his last few albums, and which, ironically, he has criticized in the biting lyrics of many of his own songs.
Starting flan the first track, "Brilliant Mistake," many of the songs seem to be self-reflective. Costello sings plaintively, "He thought he was the king of America / ...Now I try hard not to became hysterical / but I'm not sure if I'm laughing or crying..." and, "I was a fine idea at the time / Now I'm a brilliant mistake." The last track on the first side, keeping this tone up, or down rather, refers to the crown of the King of Fools Elvis consents to wear proudly.
In some songs, such as the album's version of the Animal's "Don't Let Ye Be Misunderstood" (the album's single release), the message bogs the album down. Elvis rasps, "I'm just a soul / whose intentions are good / oh lord, please don't let me be misunderstood." As a man who's been quoted as saying that the only things that motivate him are revenge and guilt, Elvis has never been thought of as having a cheery disposition, but he seems to step beyond his usual limits, or at least carries off his gloominess and cynicism with a little less finesse than usual in this album.
Despite the fun country/western romps, "Glitter Gulch" and "The Big Light," and nominally clever songs like "Suit of Lights" and "Lovable," this Elvis fan longs for the spirit of earlier albums like Armed Forces and Get Happy. Even Trust (which I consider to be his best effort), Costello at his nasty, caustic, eat-shit-and-die height (or depth), still dishes out clever word play and allusion by the bar. In King of America, without this aspect of Costello's genius to salvage the mood the album often drags.
What saves it is what was, I'm sure, the original intent of MacManus and Burnett — the album's simplicity. With songs like "Little Palaces," about the British working class poor, "Poisoned Rose," and the superb "Jack of All Parades," the simplicity and purity of the songwriting and the production, unadulterated by some of the effects that threatened to cloud previous albums' messages, allow Costello's voice to convey the messages of the songs on its own, for better or for worse (I think for the better). These are the songs that salvage the album, along with a few other memorable ones, like the bluesy "Eisenhower Blues," and "America Without Tears," whose lyrics, though characteristically cryptic at times, are distinctively Costello.
When an artist is as prolific and talented as Declan Patrick MacManus (aka Elvis Costello), fans have a right to expect a lot from his releases, Anyone who knows a little bit about Costello's music, though, knows that one can't always be sure of what to expect. Nor does one want to: none than once I have found that the latest of Elvis Costello's rantings have had to be an acquired taste. The taste I've acquired for this latest album has made it not my favorite of Elvis Costello's, but one of them.