Elvis Costello

King of America

(F-Beat/Columbia/Rhino; 1985/2005)

By Christopher Alexander | 18 May 2005

There’s a part of me that can’t discuss King of America without giving equal exegesis to Blood and Chocolate, the other record Elvis Costello did in 1986. For a long time I considered them both to be equal halves to one of The Great Divorce Double Albums, separated by what I conjectured to be either record company timorousness (or greed) or Costello’s contractual obligation (or greed). The songs on both records are practically identical; not only with the mutual theme of marital acrimony (with special attention paid to infidelity), but musically, most of them use simple R&B and country-western chord changes with a profound debt to early Sun Records sides, and they’re almost all mid-tempo ballads. It’s tempting to say that the only difference between the two is that one is louder, and King of America is better.

Rhino’s reissue confirms the basic premise of this speculation, kind-of. The initial conception of King of America was bicameral: The Attractions on one side, and the dream team of hot-shot session musicians (including, but not limited to, Ray Brown and the core of Elvis Presley’s T.C.B. band) on the other. Significantly, The Attractions cut two songs that were later rerecorded for Blood and Chocolate, and acoustic demos for “I Hope You’re Happy Now” (done in a manner more consistent with King than Blood) and a very incubational “Crimes of Paris” (titled here as “Suffering Face,”) are included in the bonus material.

The supposition falls apart on further analysis. Far from being Here, My Dear disc 2, Blood and Chocolate is a distinct record on its own, exhibiting a savagery that would’ve derailed its predecessor (the aforementioned “I Hope You’re Happy Now” is laughably melodramatic in acoustic form; the piss and vinegar of the released version makes it one of his best songs). Besides, King of America is a divorce record only as far as Blood on the Tracks is one; it informs many of the songs, but not all. What the record is really about is exile: a Britton in America as much as a man divorced from his wife. “It’s inherently contradictory,” as Costello remarks in the liner notes, a musical equivalent of talking out of both sides of one’s mouth. He dismisses the varnish of the American Dream with undisguised disillusionment in “Brilliant Mistake;” it’s simply “a trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals.” He delivers the line over a valentine to post-war American country music, fleshing out the album’s salient contradiction: a British pop star performing American roots music.

The party line on Costello’s “genre albums” is that they’re egotistically driven indulgences of music-geek fantasy, at best unlistenable and at worst enraging. A record like North brooks no argument from me, but the one nagging flaw in this theory is that his country records are actually quite good, from Almost Blue right up to The Mystery Man. What sets King of America apart is that it’s excellent, doubtlessly due to the backing band and the sure hand of T-Bone Burnett. That kind of all star personnel, it’s been argued, by itself lends credibility; I would counter that the music itself provides the authenticity that nothing so fickle as prestige can fake.

It also helps that Costello gives them some of the strongest songs of his career: “Our Little Angel,” “Little Palaces,” “Indoor Fireworks,” “The Big Light,” and “Sleep of the Just” could only be written by someone with deep reverence of the style, but they also capture the roots far better than simple homage ever could. Someone once defined sentimentality as “unearned emotion;” the sentiments are superficial since they typically come bereft of experience. Elvis Costello, then, earns it: be it in moments of clarity through self-delusion (“Now I’m in America and running from you […] and I think of all the women I pretend mean more than you/When I open my mouth and I can’t seem to talk”), recrimination (“you made the girls all turn their heads/and in turn they made you miserable”), or the scathing twists of the knife that he is justly famous for (“she said that she was working for the ABC News/it was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use”).

The lingering problem I have with the record is in the unfortunate sequencing. King of America isn’t without filler, and like most records, it’s concentrated in one area. The misstep here is that Costello or Burnett or whoever put them all at the front of the album. “Brilliant Mistake,” the set’s inaugural track, is my absolute favorite Elvis Costello song, and “Our Little Angel” isn’t far behind, but “Glitter Gulch” and “Lovable” are forced attempts to leaven a slow album (which Costello more or less admits in the liner notes), which is better served by the hangover hoedown of “The Big Light” (later performed by Johnny Cash). “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is passable, featuring the marimba player from Tom Waits’ band, which is funny since, as Elvis himself notes, “I attacked the song with a vocal part that Tom might have rejected as being too hoarse.” But then the gentle “Indoor Fireworks” conjures the Grand Old Opry, and it’s all aces from there.

King of America is the last of the Elvis Costello re-issues (seriously, when is someone going to knight the fine people of Rhino? No Thanks! and the X reissues alone make a solid case for a book titled How Rhino Saved Civilization), which gives a curious air of finality to discussion of the ninth album in a twenty-eight year career. As usual, the liner notes by themselves are almost worth the US $20.04 of admission, and the bonus disc helps foster alternate realities for completist. The finality is somewhat apropos, however, since it remains the last truly great Elvis Costello album.