Saturday, October 02, 2010

King of America (1986)

I've always felt that the two 1986 albums from Elvis Costello, following a fallow period for him of a few years, represented a kind of choice. Whether he intended it that way is less clear. But in any event either one of them, let alone the two of them together, certainly represented a return to form for him in blazing fashion. This one, true to its title, harks self-consciously to his enduring American sources (even as it excoriates American culture), country and soul and rhythm and blues, along with, as Robert Christgau remarked, "a bunch of studio pros Steve Stills himself could get behind": leveraging the services of such enduring landmark figures as T-Bone Burnett, who produced, along with studio sidemen James Burton (always the first Elvis's first choice for guitar), Earl Palmer, Ray Brown, Jim Keltner, Ralph Carney, David Hidalgo, Mitchell Froom, etc., etc. An all-star cast, in other words, for cognoscenti of mid-century American popular music; you can look 'em up. Costello, for his part, parades around in the credits as Declan MacManus, his given name, as Elvis Costello, the stage name he came to realize with this that he was stuck with forever, and as the Little Hands of Concrete, Nick Lowe's nickname for him; the band is credited as The Costello Show (featuring Elvis Costello). All of which makes it fair enough to observe that, at the age of 30, MacManus / Costello / Concrete appeared to be suffering something of an identity crisis. But it's one that's resolved by the evident plunge here into the one thing that obviously bears most meaning for him, the kind of wordy, dark, and deeply felt music that has sustained him, and often the rest of us too, these many years. The mood throughout is almost somber, and often anguished, which all in itself makes it one of his bravest efforts. If I'm going to carp about anything—and I hesitate to, given how satisfying this can be, and how perfectly suited to certain temperaments of mood—it's the familiar complaint of mine that, as with much of his later material, this requires a bit more study than I care for before it starts to give up its finest treasures, i.e., "you need to listen to it a few times before you can really get into it, man." I suppose that's just me and/or my obtuseness and/or laziness, and as I say, I'm not about to deny this is one of the very best in his entire catalog, certainly top 10 ... or is, anyway, when I'm in the right mood for it, which requires some patience and prolonged exposure if I've let too much time get away from me.

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