Music » Music Stories

Return of the King

Elvis Costello comes back to claim America's throne


Modesty has never suited Elvis Costello. Looking past his sideways sneer and knock-kneed stance on the cover of 1977's My Aim is True, one sees the phrase "Elvis is King" repeated endlessly inside the background's black-and-white checkerboard pattern. Almost a decade later, with a catalogue of punk, rock, soul and country behind him, Costello sacked his backing band, unplugged his guitar and proclaimed himself King of America with an album that traced rock & roll's roots through its country of origin.

Released in 1986, King of America marked the first stage in Costello's renaissance, a chance to reflect on his musical past while considering America's own musical heritage. Rhino Records recently re-released the album with the usual collection of demos, live recordings and collaborations, allowing listeners another pass at one of Costello's best (and best-loved) records.

Costello's rebirth took several forms, not least of which was the (temporary) abandonment of his stage name (in the liner notes, he is credited both by his birth name, Declan MacManus, and as the Little Hands of Concrete; the album itself is credited to "The Costello Show"). The Attractions, his unbeatable backing band through eight years and as many albums, appear on only one of King's tracks; instead, Costello hired session musicians from all points of American music. Jazz bassist Ray Brown plays it sweet and low on "Poisoned Rose," former Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton tears up "The Big Light" and accordionist Jo-El Sonnier gives Cajun credence to "American Without Tears."

But beyond the rootsy tone of the songs, King of America's beauty lies in the singer's tone of culpability and contriteness, a sharp turn away from the venom and righteousness of earlier Costello songs. In the album's opener, "Brilliant Mistake," the speaker looks upon consumerism, Hollywood charlatans and, finally, himself as fine ideas gone sour. Elsewhere, regretful post-war brides and slimy game-show hosts are looked on not with scorn or contempt, but with the empathetic gaze of someone similarly dethroned.

There may be no perfect Elvis Costello song, but "Indoor Fireworks" makes as good an argument as any. It revisits failed romance (a favorite topic) but addresses the failure with tender resignation; the "broken effigy of me and you" suggests a heartbreak so total that guilt and blame are irrelevant. Contrast this tone to the all-seeing stalker of "Alison" or the jilted fury of "Riot Act" and the gentler, wiser Costello emerges. Of course, this version of Costello would be blown to hell with his next album, the visceral and cacophonous Blood & Chocolate.

The timing for the reissue of King of America couldn't be better, as Costello is continuing his tour in support of last year's The Delivery Man, a scattered soap opera set in the American South. Just as King of America toured a nation both real and imagined with an amalgam of American music, The Delivery Man revisits gritty roots-rock to tell a story that, while ostensibly set in the South, transcends its setting.

To best capture the Southern Gothic spirit, the album was recorded at Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford is best known as the home of William Faulkner, a writer whose abiding love for the South didn't keep him from cataloguing its sins. And though more lucid and digestible than Faulkner, Costello seems to have borrowed a page or two from The Sound and the Fury: the disjointed, many-angled storyline; the tangled family dynamics; and the creation of an imaginary land so real that it bristles and breathes in a familiar way.

The story in The Delivery Man is a bit difficult to unpack, and purposefully so. It concerns a mother and daughter and the appearance of the titular delivery man, who, according to the title track, "looks like Elvis" (presumably Presley, that first and only Protestant saint). Rather than stringing together a narrative, these songs offer snapshots of romantic disappointment and emotional friction among the three principals. On the record, Costello is aided by the honeyed voice of Emmylou Harris and the Louisiana grit of Lucinda Williams, further enhancing the album's Southern pedigree.

But the South isn't one musical style or storytelling technique, and Costello knows this. Like all of his interpretations, Costello tailors the story to fit his own vision and style of American music. Costello wields a resonant, reverberating Gibson hollow-body guitar and gives his voice the right amount of guttural gravitas without veering into twangy cliché. For his "rock" records (not his forays into piano jazz, ballet scores and orchestral soft rock), Costello is backed by the Imposters, who are basically the Attractions minus bassist Bruce Thomas. Here, the Imposters stay true to their master's wishes while throwing in a few curveballs. The album opens with the rumbling "Button My Lip," wherein pianist/mad scientist Steve Nieve quotes a snippet of West Side Story's "America," for which the band paid Leonard Bernstein's estate. In concert, Costello has gotten his money's worth by inserting the melody of "I Feel Pretty" (from the same musical) in his snaking guitar solo for "Clubland."

When he's not quoting Broadway musicals, Costello finds inspiration for his own work in the back catalogues of others. For source material, Costello went to New Orleans R&B singer Dave Bartholomew's "The Monkey," where the primate looks on his cousins with disgust and disbelief: There's no way that humans came from us, the Monkey says. Costello updates the tune in "Monkey to Man," which maintains Bartholomew's message but wraps it in a groove worthy of the Sir Douglas Quintet.

The social commentary continues in "Bedlam," a travelogue through Hell that uproots Joseph and Mary's trek into Bethlehem and places it in the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The song is classic Costello, from the spitfire delivery to the distillation and distortion of Christian history (including his best bit of near-sacrilege yet: "I got this harlot that I'm stuck with carrying another man's child"). The song draws a straight line from the madness in Bethlehem and the Middle East to the corrupted name Bedlam, a word synonymous with institutionalized insanity.

How this all ties into Costello's vision is anyone's guess. Like all good writers, he leaves us with more questions than answers, and the vision we take from the work is dependent on what we bring into it. It's Costello's America; we just live in it.

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