Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Elvis Costello 11: King Of America

The title of his previous album (along with the lyrical tone and subsequent critical reaction) hinted strongly that some kind of transitional period was necessary, and with no new album in 1985, both the US and the UK were treated to a best-of album in time for Christmas.
As if to confirm that his last album was a farewell of sorts, Elvis made good on his threat by recording his next album with a rotating cast of American session guys, collectively dubbed The Confederates. He’d already reverted to using his given name to copyright his songs, but management insisted he stick with the established brand for the time being, so King Of America was credited to The Costello Show (to which Columbia in the US made sure to add “featuring Elvis Costello” in parentheses in case nobody recognized the face behind the beard on the cover).
From the start, the sound is much different to both the current music scene as well as Elvis’s own trajectory, making for a startling but ultimately rewarding listen. Acoustic guitars, mandolins and string basses drive the songs, with pianos, organs and accordions providing the extent of the keyboards. Nearly all the songs are upbeat, and even the slow ones don’t drag. Opening with “Brilliant Mistake”, which provides the album’s title, the album kicks off at a steady trot that continually satisfies. “Lovable” delivers a singalong with a successful use of key changes. “Our Little Angel” and “The Big Light” provide a before-and-after glimpse of sorts into a saloon. “I’ll Wear It Proudly” is one of his most tender love songs, balanced by the torchy “Poisoned Rose”. Topical songs like “Little Palaces”, “American Without Tears” and “Eisenhower Blues” offer some sociopolitical commentary. And the final trinity of “Jack Of All Parades”, “Suit Of Lights” (which features both the Attractions and Elvis’s first use of the f-word on record) and “Sleep Of The Just” provides a magnificent ending to an hour well spent.
King Of America was not a resounding success, and many critics were suspicious of his motives. But Elvis was definitely rejuvenated by the experience, and the album has certainly held up in the wake of the movement at the turn of the century. With only fifteen minutes to fill up on the original reissue, Rykodisc added two outtakes and three single sides to the end of the album, with a bonus disc of songs performed live with several Confederates. Rhino had a full bonus disc to work with, and added those extras plus even more demos, another live track, and a previously unreleased attempt with the Attractions. (They also colorized the cover.)

The Costello Show King Of America (1986)—5
1995 Rykodisc: same as 1986, plus 11 extra tracks
2005 Rhino: same as 1995, plus 10 extra tracks

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