“The album that fans, critics and Elvis Costello all agree on,” proudly states the promotional sticker affixed to copies of Rhino’s new two-disc reissue of Costello’s King of America. If by “agree on” the oblique recommendation intends to assert the record’s supreme superiority, what can I say? Sometimes the majority’s wrong.
Despite the forgiving accolades heaped upon its rootsy frame since its original 1986 release, King of America is not Costello’s best record. It does serve, along with Blood & Chocolate (also from ‘86), as a cap-doffing feather to a prolific, near-inhuman run of 11 albums in just nine years. Lauded for its unflinchingly personal tone (seriously, though, which Costello record isn’t unflinchingly personal?), King of America is an anomaly in Costello’s catalog, one that forsakes his given stage name for a more anonymous vantage point. In the liner notes to the new Rhino edition, Costello describes a desire to shake the “vengeful geek” tag and “reclaim [his] family name”. Most traces of “Elvis” are unceremoniously removed from the record’s credits: Costello is rechristened the self-deprecating moniker “Little Hands of Concrete” for performance credits and Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (minus Aloysius, his given name), for compositional credits. The record itself was credited to “The Costello Show” only after the record company balked at Costello’s insistence that it bear his original name. This effort to concoct an album of unburdened anonymity speaks to the record’s private, delicate nature and, consequently, Costello’s personal attachment to its contents.
King of America‘s most regrettable shortcoming is its lifeless production: the instruments and Costello’s voice are rendered thin as sacrament wafers; the entire mix is doused in a questionable amount of reverb. In his new book Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, Graeme Thomson refers to the record’s sound—affectionately—as monochromatic, which is both a fitting and infuriating description. Perhaps an attempt to regain “organic” textures following the plastic ‘80s pop of the underrated Punch the Clock (1983) and unjustly demonized Goodbye Cruel World (1984), King of America levies the burden of proof on its songs alone, the first record in Costello’s catalog to do so since his 1977 debut My Aim Is True. Blood & Chocolate, released barely six months later, was a much stronger, more visceral example of this, proving that even the best songs benefit greatly from how they’re presented. Rhino does a tremendous job of injecting some blood into King of America‘s veins; the remastering fleshes out the mesh of intricately plotted instrumentation in songs like “Brilliant Mistake” and inflates the chest-wheeze of Jo-El Sonnier’s accordion in “American Without Tears”. Still, King of America is a casualty of the increasingly problematic mid-‘80s production techniques, much like its predecessor Goodbye Cruel World. (Some credit must be given to the loathed Goodbye Cruel World for causing King of America to appear, at the time and in hindsight, better than it actually is.)
In chronological context of Costello’s catalog, King of America is, therefore, worthy of the cliché “return to form”, but it can also instill a faulty impression of importance—much in the same way Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is championed as a similar “comeback” and career highlight. Take Goodbye Cruel World out of the equation, and King of America appears less flattering and more competent: My Aim Is True has better songs; This Year’s Model more paranoia; Armed Forces a more challenging concept; Get Happy!!! and Trust superior style; Imperial Bedroom more adventurous studio explorations; and Punch the Clock more memorable melodies. What may draw people to King of America is its plain, uncomplicated presentation. It’s easy to understand and digest, unlike the baroque curlicues of Imperial Bedroom or the speed-fueled alliterative soul of Get Happy!!!; in this regard, King of America is a welcoming start for the uninitiated or apprehensive.
Let us retain this perspective and judge accurately: King of America is a collection of strong songs (which, frankly, is simply what had come to be expected of Costello) rendered in an unexciting manner, and that’s OK. It’s not the conclusive hallmark of Costello’s career, and that’s OK. It contains definitive songs of artistic purpose—“Brilliant Mistake” muses on regret and stupidity while neatly summarizing the crux of Costello’s career. There are classic instances of machismo deflation (“You think that you’ll be sweet to her but everybody knows / That you’re the marshmallow valentine that got stuck on her clothes”) and innate contradiction (“Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary”) (both from “Our Little Angel”). It’s an album full of harrowing portraits of rejection and isolation (“I’ll Wear It Proudly”), confrontation (“Indoor Fireworks”), and downright dazzling displays of lyrical fortitude (“Suit of Lights”). It is the watershed moment where his lifelong fascination with America took on a larger swath of his artistic palette, an obsession that would continue to inform much of his work throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s. King of America is a British perspective plagued by visions of America: a land of opportunity and disgrace, a place where fortune breeds folly. While not exactly a concept record, King of America has speckles of Americana mixed into its paint (the traditional country-folk-blues format of its songs, visions of Eisenhower, ABC, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole dancing in its head), most of it, appropriately, performed with the assistance of legendary American session men (including Elvis Presley’s “T.C.B.” band members James Burton, Jerry Scheff, and Ron Tutt, as well as Jim Keltner, Earl Palmer, Ray Brown, and co-producer T-Bone Burnett).
In his liner notes to the Rhino edition (extensively informative and humorous, as usual), Costello describes King of America as “inherently contradictory” (hence the title), and he’s right. It’s not only contradictory, it’s enigmatic—slyly, almost unconsciously so. Its greatest vocal performance is in the cover of the Animals’/Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Costello reaches down to that mysterious bottom reef in his throat that, in ‘86, he rarely explored). The most exciting songs are those that are the most traditional (the Sun/bluegrass shuffle “Glitter Gulch” and the Attractions’ scornful domination on “Suit of Lights”, their only appearance on the record). Additionally, the record sounds like a bid for inclusion in the hierarchy of a greater tradition—that of the Great American Songbook—observing linear chord progressions and the trodden soil of fundamental instrumentation. It’s as if, for the first time in Costello’s career, he’s not forcibly sticking his feet into a genre or sub-genre of his choice, but quietly nudging his way into a cemented lineage with self-doubting confidence. Like Dylan in Blood on the Tracks, Costello’s in an extraordinary lyrical league here, but the feel of breaking ground and exiting swiftly out the back, so crucial to earlier albums, has been lost in the stylistic reassessment.
With King of America, Rhino continues one of the most impressive reissuing campaigns in recent memory, actually giving fans a reason to repurchase Costello’s catalog for the third or fourth time (if not for the immaculate remastering and bonus tracks, then for the complete lyrics and Costello’s essays). Half of the inclusions on the bonus disc were originally included on Ryko’s reissue (“King of Confidence”, “Shoes Without Heels”, the Coward Brothers songs “The People’s Limousine” and “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me”) or its limited edition bonus disc (six live tunes, including an incendiary cover of Dave Bartholomew’s “That’s How You Got Killed Before”, recorded in New York City in ‘86). In the unreleased material department, the bonus disc boasts a number of whiskey-abetted solo demos, recorded throughout ‘85; the cautious readings (“raw and sozzled”, Costello notes) stretch and wring the songs ‘til their tongues pop out, and provide little more than a passing fascination with their geneses. There’s also “Betrayal”, a fine political song cut with the Attractions (left off the record) that would provide the impetus for Spike‘s “Tramp the Dirt Down”. Instead of issuing King of America as part of a like-minded group (as has been done with the other Costello reissues), Rhino has chosen to release this one on its own, a not-so-subtle indication of the record’s status among fans and record companies alike. Fair enough—let’s just not let the album get a fatter head (or more bejeweled crown) than it objectively deserves.