After the insanely prolific first five years of Elvis Costello’s recording career, eventually something had to give, and it turned out that something was quality control, as he followed up Imperial Bedroom with a pair of relative duds, signified by the titles he gave them.
1983’s Punch The Clock was shrill and full of uninteresting horns, though it gave him his first ever U.S. Top 40 hit with the cloying “Everyday I Write The Book,” and is probably worth me revisiting at some point. And Goodbye Cruel World was just dull.
So Elvis did two things: he took a year off, and he started recording again without The Attractions. The result was the stunning King of America, the first of two records that made 1986 arguably the best year of his career.
King of America featured a rootsy, stripped-down sound that relied upon the precision of the heavyweights that co-conspirator T-Bone Burnett rounded up for him. It was weird not to have The Attractions as his backing band, but after two albums of The Attractions buried in studio muck, the live-in-the studio sound of King Of America was also a relief.
So with a grand, measured opening, “Brilliant Mistake” instantly wiped away any lingering bad feelings from the past couple of records as Elvis sang:
He thought he was the King of America
Where they pour Coca Cola just like vintage wine
Now I try hard not to become hysterical
But I’m not sure if I am laughing or crying
I guess you could call it a comeback, but with Elvis Costello, I’m not even sure that’s a concept that applies. The thing I’ve learned about Elvis over the years is that he’s gonna do whatever the hell he wants to do, and I’m free to come along if I want.
And whether or not I did come along, he was still going to pen verses like:
She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use
Her perfume was unspeakable
It lingered in the air
Like her artificial laughter
Her mementos of affairs
Still, despite the fact that from the very start, Elvis conceived each album as a different entity, King of America was the first time that he really formalized that he was going to continue to fuck with his persona as well. After all, the album was (as is) credited to “The Costello Show,” and in fact, the phrase “Elvis Costello” never appeared anywhere on the album.
I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this lovin’ feeling disappear
Like it was common sense
I was a fine idea at the time
Now I’m a brilliant mistake
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