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Thursday, 14 May 2009

When he was King: Elvis Costello's country pop masterpiece

Was inspired by twitterpal Nick_Coombes to reinvestigate Elvis Costello's often overlooked 'King of America' album, giving it my undivided attention on a flight from Helsinki this week.*
When it was released in 1985, my feelings about 'King of America' were mixed. There was no mistaking the quality of the songs, but I was raised on the sturm and drang, the visceral barking rage of his early albums and, particularly coming after the muted and poorly received (though secretly, I quite like it) 'Goodbye Cruel World', it felt to me like some sort of decline was in progress. The further that his remarkable back catalogue stretches into the past, however, the more 'King of America' looks like Costello's finest hour. His passion still burned bright, his gift for a tune was undiminished and musicianship hadn't yet pushed the other two elements into the background. From this point onward, the tunes would indeed start to flatten out and soon he would begin to talk worryingly and introspectively about 'songcraft' to the great and inevitable detriment of his art.

But all that was still to come. 'King of America' is maybe the last album Costello made before he started to look downward and inward; a collection of brilliantly realised and passionately, achingly delivered songs (whatever anyone says, without the mannerisms and vocal tics which would dominate later work, Costello's singing at this time was unique in combining both the fantastically committed and the filigree delicate). It's also thrillingly adult in its material and its approach, walking the edgy tightrope of maturity without tipping over into either MOR or AOR. This is more like Bacharach country, but with the roughage left in... you can see why they rubbed along so well later on.

Highlights? It's easier to pick lowlights - actually it isn't - but as I write this I can't get 'American Without Tears' out of my head, 'Indoor Fireworks' treats marital breakup more movingly than anything this side of George Jones, and the closing 'Suit of Lights' and 'Sleep of the Just' deliver a one-two which leaves me on the canvas every time: musically stunning, emotionally devastating.

'King of America' really delivers on every level; one of maybe a dozen or so pop and rock albums to which the term 'masterpiece' can rightly and without reservation be applied. If you don't have it already, the Hipster suggests that you really should.

*undivided other than the time and effort required to open a couple of bottles of BA's remarkably fine New Zealand Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc that is - the thick end of ten quid in your local Wine Rack yet even the cheap seats get it for free on BA). Truly, world's favourite airline, you are spoiling us...

1 comment:

  1. No doubt about it, something to savour while his talent walked on by. Isn't this the record with T Bone Burnett? And after the Langer Experiment?
    Anyway it's a good one...