Elvis Costello’s got it bad. On King of America, the chorus of the first song sets the rueful tone: “I was a fine idea at the time/Now I’m a brilliant mistake.” Elvis isn’t exactly known for his sunny disposition, but here he sounds bruised and broken — not beaten but definitely down for the count, even his melodious eloquence numbed by pain. Much as Springsteen did on Nebraska, Elvis has stripped his musical structures down to the girders and turned his eye to the American landscape, searching through hillbilly gin mills and Hollywood clichés for a little catharsis. Ultimately, he doesn’t find whatever emotional grail he’s after, but this brooding, adventurous LP offers some satisfying moments.
It’s easy to imagine a slightly frustrated Elvis Costello wanting to shake the branches a bit. His last two LPs — Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World — have been largely ignored by record buyers, though they contain some of his most pungent, touching compositions: “Shipbuilding,” “Peace in Our Time,” “Everyday I Write the Book,” “The Only Flame in Town,” for starters. These records also marked producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley’s refinement of the Attractions’ bar-band potpourri into a seamless, richly textured groove, augmented by snappy horns and vocal harmonies.
Contrast that sound with the sparse, guitar-based arrangements on King of America; it’s as if Elvis and coproducer T-Bone Burnett sought to bare the Costello soul by peeling away the layers of Brit-pop artifice. (And for the first time the songs are credited to Mac-Manus, rather than the pseudonymous Costello.) On all but one track, the Attractions have been replaced by a crew of Los Angeles sessioneers (including legendary guitarist James Burton), who are presumably better equipped to guide Elvis down the “boulevard of broken dreams” described in “Brilliant Mistake.” But their more relaxed, folksy pace puts pressure on Costello the singer; without a pumping beat behind him, Elvis gets bogged down. Whereas his previous albums have been footraces, with the listener always a step or two behind, King of America is apt to inspire some impatience.
The LP is littered with dozens of memorable lines but only a handful of coherent songs. “Brilliant Mistake” and the side-two opener, “American Without Tears,” offer the expected literate hooks, but in both, choruses sink under the weight of verses. As it turns out in “Brilliant Mistake,” the King of America is a hapless sod, and he’s lost his heart to a bimbo who wears “unspeakable” perfume and claims to work for ABC News — “It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use.” By Costello’s standards, that’s a fairly weak put-down, and it’s hardly helped by his plodding Dylanesque delivery. Burton’s guitar adds a lonely tang to “American Without Tears,” while Elvis’ nasal croon renders the chorus indelible: “Now we don’t speak any English/Just American without tears.” But what does that mean? The song itself, an expatriate’s rambling narrative, clouds rather than clarifies the chorus.
Still, his eye for telling detail hasn’t gone completely out of focus. “Our Little Angel” is a jaded torch song for a close cousin of George Jones’ “Girl at the End of the Bar,” and between the controlled longing of the vocal and Burton’s beautiful guitar and dobro lines, it’s one of Elvis’ best country excursions. Burton winds Elvis up on the game-show sendup “Glitter Gulch,” his rapid-fire rockabilly picking amplifying the claustrophobia of the chorus: “All the vultures tuning into Glitter Gulch/Are looking in on you/And they’re hungry.” On “Indoor Fireworks” Elvis falls back on another proven approach — taking a single metaphor and weaving an entire song around it. Though the image itself may seem slight — the angry young Elvis would’ve tossed off “indoor fireworks” in a single line and moved on — it’s strengthened by the spare acoustic guitar accompaniment and Elvis’ casual but sure reading. Yet when he returns to Britain on the very next cut, “Little Palaces,” the equally subdued guitar and mandolin backing just underscores the maudlin, condescending tone of the lyric. One Ray Davies is more than enough for the British working class to bear.
Ever since Get Happy, Elvis Costello has gradually built a reputation as an interpreter of other people’s songs. So while it’s not surprising that King of America‘s centerpiece is a cover version, it’s downright shocking what Elvis does — and doesn’t do — to the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” The rhythm’s a bit jazzier, but basically it’s what the original would have sounded like had Eric Burdon been on his deathbed. Elvis’ wheezes and croaks are horrific — they sound like they were recorded in a ward, not a studio. It’s tough not to be misunderstood when you’re gargling on your own bile.
King of America is not without its lighter moments, however. It contains some of the loosest stuff Costello’s committed to vinyl. “Lovable” is a cute little hate valentine, all sweetness and heavy-handed irony, but it’s put over by a simple, bouncy melody and a vocal assist from David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. The Fifties period piece “Eisenhower Blues” is disposable, but “The Big Light” is another Burton-fueled rockabilly rave that rings funny and true: who else but Elvis would get a hangover that “had a personality”?
In the end this album just exudes righteous suffering from every pore — even the jokes are at the author’s expense. Steve Nieve’s familiar piano and organ lift the pallor considerably when the Attractions pop up on “Suit of Lights,” but again Elvis’ singing sounds awkward, and the words come off fuzzy and overreaching. Elvis Costello seems most sure of himself on “I’ll Wear It Proudly,” in which he claims the crown of another king — the King of Fools. “And you can all die laughing/Cos I’ll wear it proudly.” Martyrdom’s a noble profession, but pop music needs its romantic muckraker now more than ever.