Review Summary: Costello's best experiment.
It was 9 years before this record, Elvis’ 10th, that Elvis was promoting his ska-dashed debut, the masterful My Aim Is True. He tinkered with the formula, spawning a slew of great singles and two equally perfect follow ups, 1978′s This Year’s Model and 1979′s Armed Forces. On the front of the former of these records was a man with gigantic Buddy Holly spectacles, clean shaven, in a suit. He looked young, fresh and as sharp as his biting lyrics. King Of America is, then, quite a different proposition: Elvis poses with a beard, a crown, and a small pair of wire-rimmed glasses, hiding world-weary eyes.
Differences go further than skin deep in the case, however. Costello traded in his new-wave stylings, dropped the Attractions (though they do appear on one song), and immersed himself in Americana. The result, a seismic shift from his tried and tested formula, is wonderful.
We’re eased in to Elvis’ new muse; single and opener ‘Brilliant Mistake’, is not a huge jump from his new-wave standards – but different enough to signal a change to the listener. It – and the album – contain as much of Costello’s bitter political lyrics and wry humour, the change is perhaps only in the presentation. It is an excellent take on folk music, specifically Americana, but what makes the album is how it really is Costello’s own – perhaps this was the downfall of some of his other ‘experiments’ – it’s very definitely a new style, but it still contains all the elements of Elvis Costello that makes him on the most celebrated music acts in history. Some of his finest writing is evident on here, ‘American Without Tears’, and ‘Little Palaces’, the latter my submission as one of the most beautiful political songs in music – a bold claim, especially given it is the hyper-political Costello we’re talking about here. Perhaps I’m biased – I’m a Northerner – but the mesmeric guitar and mandolin are matched only by Costello’s howls of ‘And you say you didn’t do it / But you know you did of course’. It has as many upbeat moments as My Aim Is True though as well; ‘Eisenhower Blues’, an old J.B. Lenoir standard, places similarly to ‘Mystery Dance’ on his debut – infectious and dance-inducing – the other equally valuable side of Mr Costello. He borrows from the best, and ‘Poisoned Rose’ has a similar beauty to old country classic ‘There Stands The Glass’, particularly the late Ted Hawkins’ rendition.
This was the first, and for me, the best of Costello’s ‘experiments’. He’s a man with many fingers in many pies – Brodsky Quartet, anyone? – a few stuck; perhaps a fair few more didn’t. And yet, I think it’s OK to take that many failures, that many disappointments, if just one record as good as this is a product of Elvis’ incessant experimentation. Experiment on, my good man.