Jimmy Guterman's blog

media, technology, management, and the rest of it

The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello), King of America

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A couple tweets recently from Officemate Sean got me thinking about this great record. Also, I’ve been thinking about Write Articles, Not Blog Postings, a smart essay from Jakob Nielsen that advocates smarter, longer text entries online. Since I’m microblogging anway, it makes sense to think long on the blog. I appreciate Nielsen for another reason: my rarely updated website stole its design from his frequently updated one.

Anyway, here goes:

costello1In late 1977, 22-year-old British songwriter and singer Elvis Costello played his first dates in America. Those early performances were short and furious: “Revenge and guilt,” he told early interviewers who demanded his motives. Their shows climaxed with the guitarist and his band, the Attractions, drenches their audiences in waves of feedback as they vacated the stage. “I’m not angry,” Costello sang on his debut album My Aim Is True. That was a lie.

The mainstream American pop audience first heard Costello during a Saturday Night Live performance in which he halted a familiar song and ordered the Attractions to start “Radio Radio,” a damnation of American radio that assured his longtime blackballing from it. The pair of albums that followed, the punk-inspired This Year’s Model and pop-deconstruction Armed Forces, established Costello as a resourceful songwriter who dissected domestic and political strife without anesthetizing audience or issue and his Attractions as a fiery yet tasteful unit that could attack reckless rockers and caress carefully constructed ballads with equal aplomb.

Following some drunken stupidity that for many years was all most American pop listeners knew about him, Costello then spent the better part of a decade scrambling for a niche, even though even an indecisive Costello has merit. The 1980 Get Happy!! was a sketchy tour though physical and moral expatriation with Stax-filtered soul; Imperial Bedroom (1982) wove an astonishing, ambitious collage of late-Beatles pop landscapes. But then, as if that expansive idea had claimed all his ideas, Costello traded wordplay for facility and his accompaniment, once terse and unforgiving, deteriorated into dilettantism, hopping among genres with the discretion of a sailor on leave. It wasn’t a complete fall; the personal venom and political acuity of early Costello occasional slipped through the cracks of his crumbling career.

In 1984, after Costello had completed recorded his most desultory album (not-too-subtly titled Goodbye Cruel World), he embarked on a solo tour and reclaimed his career. He shed the Attractions, whose lush backup had dulled what straightforward melodies and narratives he still conjured. He followed that tour with a short jaunt backed by the Attractions, but made clear that he had one foot out the door. “I was a fine idea at the time,” he sang on one of his new tunes. “But now I’m a brilliant mistake.” He got divorced and remarried and put the Attractions on hiatus. Then he recorded the album of his life.

Performers make different noises when they think — or fear — that no one is listening. King of America was the sound of a zombie coming back to life, or a life in fear of turning into a zombie. He identified the “kingdom of the invisible” in “Little Palaces” as the place where Prince William may reign one day, but that was where all these characters lived. Every line on the album was sung by narrators terrified that they will disappear, certain only that they don’t matter. No one worried about the world falling apart because they were convinced that it had already. The rockabilly “Glitter Gulch,” on surface a light poke at American game shows that ended with the winner taking up with the hostess, railed against the crassness in any relationship: “He climbed upon his honey and he covered her with money,” Costello spat. Amid these ravages, there was a hovering love (“I’ll Wear It Proudly,” “Jack of All Parades”) that never quite landed — but its proximity made the pain nearly bearable. The music was a lanky foundation, loose yet precise. Built around the core of Elvis Presley’s last band, here dubbed the Confederates, they squeezed inside the songs, nourishing them instead of inflating them. Several years after Almost Blue, a tentative and rather obvious set of C&W standards, Costello was finally able to incorporate the personal moral profundity of top-drawer C&W into the public ethical demands of his most lasting work. Child ballads, Chicago blues, waltzes: everything fit in, commented on other elements, and enhanced one another.

Costello produced the record with T Bone Burnett, another hyperverbal/cynical performer looking for a way to unclutter his mind and his music, and the combination resulted in as honest and direct an LP as Costello will likely ever record. They knew that embellishment would have been superfluous. The songs on King of America justified themselves without any of the insular alterations that a studio-weary Costello later employed to deflate some of his finest Nineties compositions. The distances — between performer and audience, between song and arrangement, between performer and song, between born name and jokey stage monicker — that have always fascinated Costello, even on many of his stronger outings, are almost totally absent on King of America, replaced by a singer and guitarist obsessed with paring away, telling a truth. Costello still loved words too much not to tinker with them; hence such lines as “Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary,” from “Our Little Angel,” an ominous country ballad, built around James Burton’s pointed, graceful guitar nudges. But this time Costello wasn’t hiding behind words.

To complete his public rehabilitation, Costello cast off on a wacko tour featuring him in a variety of configurations, some profound, most amusing. For the final encore of the tour’s last show, Costello chose “Poor Napoleon,” a slight, funny song about impotence from Blood and Chocolate, the rush-recorded-but-half-great reunion with the Attractions. As the tale reached its conclusion, the instruments stopped emitting notes and started shooting out distortion, until the noise turned painful. The feedback still filled the theater after the band left the stage for good and the house lights went up. Costello had brought both his band and his audience back where they had started, with noting resolved.

(This is a reworking of something I wrote long ago — late 1986, I think, for The Nation, which accepted it but never published it. A revised version of it appeared in one of my books. Reading it now, I realize I was lucky enough to have written about Costello at his peak.)

Written by guterman

December 2, 2008 at 5:01 pm

Posted in music

One Response

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  1. […] arch and overly polite: in a word, precious. Each part of that union has done remarkable work (here are some notes I took on Costello a while back), but the project remains too self-consciously inoffensive to take off, despite some soaring […]

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