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Mashmellow valentine
King of America
Elvis Costello
Rykodisc

It's a reissue, and it's not. The first of Elvis C.'s 1986 "comeback" albums, this one with the Attractions traded in for Elvis P.'s band, it marked a departure from which he's yet to veer--the pop traded in for swing, the rock for rockabilly, the punk for purism. King--like the masterpiece of Blood and Chocolate, which followed a few months later--was the album on which Costello lightened up and reached out, his music and persona reinvented to accommodate his love for American music and myths. His words were intimate but never so personal you couldn't revel in his anger and disillusionment and wonder, and he sang then with a vigor and luster that all but silenced those who said the man couldn't sing. "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" may have been an ill-advised cover, but it was also a plea--no matter how snide or aloof he might appear, Elvis seemed to be saying, his intentions were nothing but pure.

To listen to the album again--after the bitter Mighty Like a Rose, the failed Brodsky Quartet experiment, and his return-to-roots Brutal Youth--is to rediscover Costello as the last of a breed of writers whose songs could capture a time and an environment. Like Randy Newman and even The Band, Costello brought together words and music to create a larger, more tangible entity--in this case, a portrait of an America paved with "boulevards of broken dreams" and a place still recovering from the "Eisenhower Blues." He damned with wicked glee ("She said she worked for ABC News/It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use"), but his music--a bracing mixture of blues and folk and jazz, rockabilly and country--belied a larger affection for our own evil empire.

The Ryko reissue not only gives the album a second life, but it also fleshes out King with the standard added tracks (including "The People's Limousine," a duet with T Bone Burnett and previously available on the import-only Out of Our Idiot) and a bonus live disc recorded with the Confederates in 1986. The six-track in-concert album provides the greatest revelation, running the gamut from Sonny Boy Williamson's "Your Funeral and My Trial" to Waylon Jennings' "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line"--proof that Costello understood, and loved, American music so much he finally earned his name.

On that New York stage in 1986, backed by musicians who once held down the groove for Presley and Ricky Nelson, Costello was indeed the King--of America, and beyond.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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