Elvis Costello once told an interviewer that he didn't plan to be around to witness his artistic decline, but you couldn't have proved that by his last couple of albums. They were fussy, wildly overproduced, and, in general, too clever by half. His new King of America, while not exactly a return to the transcendent form of This Year's Model, contains the most interesting music he has made in a long time, and the fact that it sounds like hardly anything else on the radio at the moment is merely icing on the cake. King of America is also the first release to reflect Costello's reversion to his original name, Declan Patrick MacManus. Transitionally, the performance is credited to "The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello)," while MacManus is credited for songwriting and co-production.
Lyrically, Costello/MacManus hasn't changed much. He remains obsessed with the detritus of romantic relationships and the ways people manipulate each other — "emotional fascism," he calls it. But other targets are skewered too, and his gift for wordplay remains intact. In the title song, for example, he meets a girl "working for the ABC News" and observes, "It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use." There is also a bit of social commentary in "Little Palaces," about "the sedated homes of England," and a new emphasis on what can only be described as cabaret/torch songs — "Poisoned Rose," for example, which features jazz bassist Ray Brown, is a literate, urbane, heart-on-sleeve weeper that could be covered without difficulty by Bobby Short on a crying jag.
Musically, the album is stripped down and raw-edged in all the best ways. The backing on several tracks is by the stars of the other Elvis's touring band, including the great James Burton on guitar, and the result is a sort of modernized Sun Records sound that nudges Costello into the most unpredictable and emotive singing of his career.
Add to all this some inspired covers — J. B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues" (not bad for white boys) and the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," a perfect choice for a man who's been misunderstood constantly — and a fine guest appearance by his old back-up band, the Attractions, on "Suit of Lights." What you get is, if not the Elvis Costello album of your dreams, certainly one of the most unexpectedly rewarding albums of the last several months. As Harry Golden used to say in an altogether different context, Enjoy!