In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “It’s great to hear an album by someone who I was so sure I was familiar with, to only then be surprised in different ways from song to song.”
Diving head first into the back catalogue of musical legends is intimidating. First of all, if they’re considered a legend, chances are they’ve been around a while and produced a healthy sized body of work. Secondly, if you don’t like it, what does that say about your own tastes, or lack thereof? Between his legendary status and 24 solo albums over almost 40 years, the work of Elvis Costello is dense and immense. I already know I like him, and I still felt anxious when trying to decide which of his albums to listen to for a review. In the end, for maximum new exposure, I chose one with the least number of song titles I recognised. I chose King of America.
After the Costello-standard guitar based, melodious rock perfection of Brilliant Mistake, it’s his take on walking bass, 12 bar, 50s country, rock n roll with Loveable. It’s not really a sound I’ve ever felt myself wishing Costello had tackled, and while it’s a perfectly fine little curiosity, it’s not the kind of thing I hope to find more of on King of America, or really anywhere else in the Elvis Costello oeuvre.
It’s interesting that Costello gets his most experimental and unique, when covering a song written by someone else. Instead of putting his own, recognisable spin on Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Costello goes for a really 80s, over produced sound complete with (possibly synthy) Asian drums. It’s in no way how I would have predicted he would tackle this song. It’s in no way how I’d predict anyone would tackle this song. But it’s unexpected weirdness works. Especially as Costello’s voice gets deep in the dirt for a real, authentic grittiness.
With a country sound so over the top it could be mistaken for a comedy sketch, Glitter Gulch (and later The Big Light) embraces county music’s worst clichés, heightens them to the extreme, and comes out the other end with a country classic too good to be performed by a Brit. The American appropriations keep on coming with Little Palaces sounding like it’s come straight off a Kentucky mountain with guitar and mandolin drive, while Costello’s delivery and overly literate lyrics give it an intellectual veneer.
A waltz time signature spiked with accordion, American Without Tears is yet another throwback to a very traditional, very specific kind of music. As is the honky tonk piano blues rock of Eisenhower Blues. And in both cases, King of America is up to the challenge.
As King of America comes to a close, it gets back into more expected Elvis Costello territory with Suit of Lights and Sleep of the Just. Just solid song writing that needs minimal frills to sound amazing. It’s great to hear an album by someone who I was so sure I was familiar with, to only then be surprised in different ways from song to song. Even three decades ago, Elvis Costello was already 10 years and almost as many records deep into his career. He’d already proven himself, and with this release, I have to assume he was subverting expectations.