Albums A to Z: King of America

However many years into iTunes’ existence, I still prefer to get my albums in physical form. I’m no audiophile (I don’t own any vinyl), but I am a bibliophile, and there’s something irreplaceable for me about reading liner notes.

Occasionally, I regret this impulse: printed lyrics sometimes reveal that I should be ready to be disappointed before I even press Play. But even then, after what might be the only listen I give the disc, I love to go back and check the credits for each song, to be surprised by what instruments were played, and by whom.

And, in a very few cases, the artist recognizes that people like me exist and devote special attention to producing notes that truly enhance the album. For me, no one is better at this than British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, who turned the reissue of his back catalog in the 1990s and 2000s into a chance to write mini-autobiographies/critical essays for each album. I’d love to write about almost any of them up through Blood & Chocolate, but since we’re at ‘K’ in my alphabetical tour, let’s listen to/read through a strange entry in his recorded output.

The Costello Show, King of America

The Costello Show, King of AmericaIt’s interesting that, in this series as in musical history, King of America should happen to come on the heels of U2’s The Joshua Tree. Released within a year of each other, the two otherwise dissimilar albums featured already-popular musicians leaving the British Isles to explore America — both its musical history and its cultural contradictions. Not surprisingly, U2 do so more earnestly than the Elvis at the center of “The Costello Show,” who treats King of America primarily as a new chance for reinvention (a classically New World theme, I suppose) and an excuse to delve further into country, folk, blues, jazz, and other roots of rock. I’m sure there are barbs aimed at Ronald Reagan that I’m missing (having been a fifth grader when this came out), but you won’t find Bono-esque pleas on behalf of the victims of American empire here. (The most overt social commentary is on the most British track, the folky “Little Palaces,” whose tour of “The sedated homes of England” seems like an antecedent for the Thatcher-baiting of the later “Tramp the dirt down.”)

Instead, Costello (who more often uses his given name in the credits — Declan MacManus — or “The Little Hands of Concrete,” from Nick Lowe’s description of Costello/MacManus’ guitar playing style) turns in a set of character studies featuring everyone from game show hosts to his own father. Occasionally, Costello’s hyperliterate approach to lyric-writing (“Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary,” if I can borrow a simile from “Our Little Angel”) produces songs that are simply too crowded to make any impression (“Glitter Gulch”), but it also yields its fair share of memorable insults (“She said that she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use,” from album opener and highlight “Brilliant Mistake”) and rare is the song that doesn’t produce at least one scintillating quatrain. For example, when I first bought the album, I remember skipping past “I’ll Wear It Proudly” the first few plays in order to get to “American Without Tears” (Costello’s tale of overhearing a pair of former G.I. brides tell their story — “close as this record comes to having a theme,” he writes in the liner notes to the 1995 Rykodisc reissue that I own), but a fresh listen to a song about being a lovesick “King of Fools” reveals new riches in its first lines (“I hate these flaming curtains / They’re not the colour of your hair / I hate these striplights / They’re not so undoing as your stare”) and bridge (“I’ll wear it proudly / Through the dives and the dancehalls / If you’ll wear it proudly / Through the snakepits and the catcalls”).

While one of the stars of King of America is guitarist James Burton (check out his dobro on “Glitter Gulch,” followed by the gentle picking behind “Indoor Fireworks”), it’s clear that Costello is just as interested in the popular music that preceded the revolution led by the earlier Elvis in whose band Burton played. Sometimes the attempts to play pre-rock crooner come off fantastically well (“Indoor Fireworks” — recorded quickly, “as this kind of romantic obituary is not something you want to labour over”), but there are two or three too many torchy ballads on here, including a cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” that Costello admits he “attacked… with a vocal capacity that Tom [Waits] might have rejected as being too hoarse.” Which didn’t stop Costello’s record company — who, in his judgment, “showed their customary imagination” — from releasing it as the first single, “ahead of any of the more unusual and heartfelt balladry that I had composed.” (The other cover — of J.B. Lenoir’s “Eisenhower Blues” — helps breaks up the second half of the album, though Costello admits that “There was no real reason to cut it except that it gave everyone a chance to relax and play a bit.”)

One mid-tempo number that proves to be a surprising highlight is “Suit of Lights,” the sole track that features all three members of The Attractions, Costello’s usual backing group. (Not that it’s all that Attractions-like outside of Steve Nieve’s piano parts and the soaring bridge; the earlier “Lovable” — with a great harmony vocal by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos — sounds more like earlier Elvis, and there Costello is backed by session musicians.) And here the liner notes help immeasurably, explaining not only why plans to include The Attractions on half the album fell apart but also that the bitter lyrics (“And it’s the force of habit / If it moves then you f*** it / If it doesn’t then you stab it”; “Can’t you give us all a break / Can’t you stop breathing”) were “inspired by watching my father, Ross [an English bandleader], sing of experience and tenderness to an uncomprehending rabble of karaoke-trained dullards.” Given that Costello hadn’t had an album crack the US Top 10 since Armed Forces in 1979, one wonders if he didn’t have a different MacManus in mind when he snarled, “Outside they’re painting tar on somebody / It’s the closest to a work of art that they will ever be.”

In any case, King of America peaked at #39 on that chart, and the singles didn’t do any better. Which shouldn’t be surprising: there are few melodies here as gripping as those that propelled Costello to fame in the late 70s (or as interesting as what he put on Imperial Bedroom); the catchiest song on the reissues is “The People’s Limousine,” written and recorded before the King of America sessions by Costello and KoA producer T-Bone Burnett, trading verses and performing as The Coward Brothers. But its dense lyrics reward closer listening — as its liner notes (if you can find the reissue, which I think is out of print) reward closer reading.

Release Date: 1986

Three Favorite Tracks: “Brilliant Mistake”; “Suit of Lights”; “The People’s Limousine” (bonus track)

Other Nominees: Guster, Keep It Together; MC5, Kick Out the Jams; Wilco, Kicking Television; Marah, Kids in Philly; Brooks Williams, Knife Edge; The Kooks, Konk.

<<J is for The Joshua Tree                L is for The Last DJ>>

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