By the mid-'80s, with sub-par efforts like Goodbye Cruel World, Elvis Costello's illustrious run with the Attractions neared its end. It was time to jettison the insularity that marked his early years, and a partnership with T-Bone Burnett, supreme alchemist of American roots music, was just the ticket.
Through low-key tours (as The Coward Brothers), Costello began the task of stripping the superfluous from his sound (a hillbilly cover of Hank Williams' "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me" is prescient). Meanwhile they assembled The Confederates, an ad hoc group featuring Elvis Presley's backing band and guitar legend James Burton, casting Costello's songs of recrimination into the kind of earthy, authentically American milieu first attempted with 1981's Almost Blue.
The lyrical directness of the material — eight cuts of which appear here as austere solo demos — and the band's versatility synthesized Costello folk, country and R&B impulses.
Significantly, the songwriting mirrors The Band's eponymous album and the Stones' Beggars Banquet, grappling with America's bewildering contradictions. While the graceful balladry of "Indoor Fireworks" and "I'll Wear It Proudly" signal Costello's new-found insight into romantic complexity, and the stately "Poisoned Rose" toys with the vernacular of the great American songbook, "Brilliant Mistake" and "American Without Tears" form the album's true epicentre. The former, a mixture of repulsion and disbelief, zeroes in on America's discomfiting duality. The latter gliding on Jo-El Sonnier's accordion, is perfection, brilliantly interweaving historical recollection and personal narrative — as Costello says, "exile and escape " — into its immortal tale.