With his new album, King of America, Elvis Costello has created a work which is quite different, in some striking ways, from his last couple of LPs.
American T-Bone Burnett has replaced British pop, masters Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley behind the production board. Changing collections of musicians, including members of Elvis Presley's TCB band and jazz rhythmatists Ray Brown and Earl Palmer, have stepped in for the Attractions for all but one cut.
The music on King of America is much sparser than the cutesy, horn-and-organ sounds that filled Costello's other recent works. And on this album, Costello, who has legally changed his name back to Declan MacManus, has his well-enunciated vocals pushed to the front of the mix. King of America comes with a lyric sheet, but this is the first Costello album where it's absolutely unnecessary.
Costello's albums, however, live and die by the songs, and this is where King of America truly excels over the rest of his output this decade. Too often his writing has resembled formalistic exercises in complicated song structures or, on the opposite extreme, a bunch of clever phrases haphazardly strung together. Moments of brilliance, like Punch the Clock's "Shipbuilding" or Goodbye Cruel World's "Peace in Our Time," were brought down by much weaker material.
But on King of America, even throwaway songs have a classic air. "Indoor Fireworks" is a simple, melancholy examination of a combustible relationship, while "The Big Light" is the most rocking song to be written about a hangover in years.
The two cover songs on King of America are rendered in a similiar, unpretentious manner. The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" is hoarsely delivered as a rather pessimistic, desperate plea, while J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues" is presented as a fun romp into suburban discontent.
Thar theme is also presented in some of the album's weightier songs. "Little Palaces," for example, is a stark, Billy Bragg-style number about the goings-on in a factory town. "So you knock the kids about a bit / Because they've got your name," Costello cries, powerfully bringing home the frustrations of living in such a rootless environment.
Another theme of the LP is cultural displacement, anchoring such tunes as "American Without Tears," about English girls who left with American G.I.'s after World War II, and "Brilliant Mistake," a song which can also be interpreted as an expression of Costello's discontent with his past. "I was a fine idea at the time," he concludes in the piece. "Now I'm a brilliant mistake."
As a plan for Costello's future work, King of America seems to be just fine. By the final song, the beautiful "Sleep of the Just," one realizes that he has never sounded more human, nor has he recorded more touching music.
Gone are all the angry young man mannerisms of the past, in their place is the work of a mature tunesmith who has finally forsaken artifice to get to the emotional heart of his music. The king, as they say, is dead; long live the king.