Declan Patrick Aloyisius MacManus is trying to mess with our minds again. Having passed himself off at various times as Elvis Costello, Howard (or is it Henry?) Coward, Napoleon Dynamite, and, most fittingly, The Impostor, he's finally figured out how to up the ante. Elvis, in his role as head of Demon Records, has created in Out of our Idiot perhaps the first fictional sampler album, a collection of cuts from "Various Artists" who all happen to be, or at least include, the same person.
It's a inspired concept. a clever way to unify a hodge-podge of B-sides, non-album singles, and other stuff lying around the studio, but it works better on paper than vinyl. Napoleon Dynamite made his debut in the credit of Blood and Chocolate, Elvis' last album of all-new material. He showed up at some of the subsequent tour dates, and was a guest VJ (alternating with Mr. Costello) on MTV. Dynamite was a shadowy magician, alternating between enigmatic film-noirisms and Las Vegas shtick.
Mirroring the movie-obsession of his recent work, Elvis seems to be striving for a Peter Sellers-like cast of Elvises. But because the differences in characters aren't clear in the songs themselves, he creates only reflections of himself.
Regardless of who's supposed to be in charge, Elvis remains a songwriting god. The best new stuff is the cuts with the Confederates. Like the songs on King of America. they sound like Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan would've if he'd gotten himself a real band. The new, stripped-down and re-written "Twilight Version" of "America Without Tears" is "Tangled Up in Blue" on a bigger budget. "Shoes Without Heels" is an elegant cry of rejection. all bitterness with no bile. That side of Elvis is more than taken care of on songs like the one that follows, the super-charged "Baby's Got a Brand-New Hairdo," in which he "wonder[s] what's left inside."
In the tradition of "My Funny Valentine" (from Taking Liberties, an earlier closet-clearing), Elvis does straight covers everyone from Burt Bacharach to Yoko Ono. as well as stealing from "Guys and Dolls" on "Heathen Town."
I think Elvis himself recognizes that all this role playing, no matter how sophisticated, can become just another rut. Elvis has always had a tendency to milk his cows till they sour — Almost Blue and Goodbye Cruel World were the dead ends he had to hit before popping up reinvigorated with a new musical direction. Now. Elvis has taken it upon himself to reinvigorate Paul McCartney. Press to Play seemed conclusive evidence that cutest and richest Beatle was planning on sitting on his ass for the rest of his days. but on the B-side to his latest single he promises to "kick up a fuss again," as he asks to "give me a hand / till I'm back on my feet." Mixing Elvis's cinemascopic imagery and structure with a "Penny Lane"-ish melody, "Back on My Feet" is pretty convincing, and encouraging for fans of both partners. The two are supposedly working on an album together now. Perhaps a good dose of pop from Paul can knock Elvis out of his role-games, and get him back to making music.