NEW YORK — Leave it to Elvis Costello to change his name back to his given Declan Patrick MacManus, just in time to plumb the roots of rock on King of America. "I was a fine idea at the time," sings the legendary British new waver on the LP's opening song "Now I'm a brilliant mistake."
"I didn't go out and make a statement like 'from henceforth I will not answer to that name,'" protests MacManus, 32, dressed for a rare round of interviews in bohemian black.
"The record company would be very annoyed with me if I tried to distance myself too much from the Elvis Costello name, because it's too much of a good trademark. It's just that now I'm legally me again."
Costello or MacManus, he is one of the most critically acclaimed rock artists of the past decade. A prolific, multistyle songwriter, his influence extends beyond his large cult audience; Linda Ronstadt, for one, has covered such Costello tunes as "Alison," and Costello has recorded in Nashville, including a duet of his own "Stranger in the House" with country legend George Jones.
MacManus called himself Elvis as a highly promotable punk-rock prank; on King, he plays with musicians who worked with Elvis Presley.
Personally, if not musically. he has sometimes acted the punk. In 1979, his reputation was tarnished by a widely reported drunken critique of Ray Charles. His marriage was an on-again, off-again affair (he has a 10-year-old son); with a divorce in its final stages, MacManus is engaged to Cait O'Riordan of the Irish group the Pogues.
King of America is a breakthrough LP for MacManus, and not just because of his new/old name: Working with a sympathetic co-producer (T Bone Burnett) and superb players, his songs span a potpourri of styles, including folk, pop, count!) and rockabilly. The unusually straightforward lyrics, deftly mixing the personal and the political, are among his most effective.
Yet it's no accident that King's first single is a cover of the Animals' classic "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."
"I love stirring it up." MacManus says, "but I don't want people to overlook the quality and content of what's there because they've got a preconceived idea of who I am and what I do."
One misunderstanding MacManus is anxious to untangle is with his backing trio, the Attractions, reportedly miffed by their minimal participation on the LP. With no tour planned, MacManus is convening the group to begin recording his latest batch of tunes.
Elvis Costello used to say his inspirations were "guilt and revenge." Declan MacManus now explains that he likes "artists who frighten you, even if it's with a tender thing."
MacManus admits that he was seduced by the rock star role of Elvis. "I caught myself looking to see what I could get away with. I thought it was funny, and that people would see the joke, and then one day I woke up and thought 'Hang on, people just think I'm a mug like those other people that used to act like this.'