PRINT March 1986


In the kingdom of the invisible.

ON KING OF AMERICA (Columbia) Elvis Costello moves through a world made out of old pop songs, postcards of the royal family, waiting rooms, cocktail lounges, alcoholics’ bed-sitters, and half-remembered friends, lovers, chance acquaintances—it’s a world of detritus. Within a single tune the time frame may range from the ’40s to the present, but it never holds still; time folds in on itself. A reference to Madonna’s “Material Girl” can sound as dated, as faded, as one to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

In the same way, the stories Costello is telling move from England to America and back again; each place is an axis of the album, but neither quite comes into focus as a real place, where real people actually live. They stay in the distance, like memories, or old movie sets—more detritus. The music carries an undercurrent of some controlling social fact—some great social dislocation—but you can’t grasp its purpose anymore than Costello’s characters can. Mostly they don’t bother to try; their gestures are weighted, tired, bitter. In the way Costello sings their words, his people speak like exiles: in their shifting tones of voice more than in any particular lyric, they seem always to refer to something that isn’t there.

The mood is rarely dramatized. Taken as a whole, the details Costello offers merely make a landscape, a flatly unnatural landscape. When violence erupts it’s usually self-contained, a joke or a simile: “When you try to love her/But she’s so contrary/Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary.” As a singer, Costello makes nothing of that last line. He slides away from it, and that’s why it works as music. The line is just another line—or would be, if King of America didn’t center around a song about the dissolution of language. The real ugliness of the moment may take time to surface: the record is disturbing, but easy to listen to. Quiet or noisy, arrangements are kept simple. They chug or float, and it takes no effort to enter the sound, which opens up, reveals itself, without the listener necessarily noticing the change. At first a forest, the landscape becomes a stand of trees, which turn into signposts, which become speakers people talking, muttering, swearing, who then turn back into trees, and fade back into the landscape.

The delicacy of communication here rests partly on the very high quality of the compositions—“American without Tears,” “Sleep of the Just,” “Our Little Angel,” and “Little Palaces” are exquisite songs, as good as any Costello has written—and partly on the care that has gone into their recording. Working with producer T-Bone Burnett, Costello has dropped the convoluted orchestrations and clogged melody lines of 1984’s Goodbye Cruel World and 1982’s Imperial Bedroom, moving often into the space cleared by the studied, subtle sound he used during that period on his pseudonymous “Impostor” singles, “Pills and Soap” and “Peace in Our Time”/“Withered and Died.” The result is his enfranchisement as a singer.

Costello has no bel canto gifts to draw on; his timbre will always be moral. Throughout King of America, he lets his voice quiver at the end of a line, suspends it in the air, makes you aware that he is trying to get something across. There are little cracks and tears in Costello’s voice when he brings it up to meet a chorus; the struggle to communicate becomes its own subject matter. You can’t rest with the perfect gentleness of “Sleep of the Just,” with the forgiveness in the way Costello sings “If you must, you must.” What is communicated is a conviction that a form of speech is a form of morality; as the notion rises up with in the music, it can begin to make you nervous.

The soft “Our Little Angel” rolls out with vaguely country accompaniment, but the beat some how pulls against itself. It tenses up, and Costello doesn’t have to make anything of “Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary”—the violence is already there, quietly turning nice girls into prostitutes, parades into funeral marches, outdoor gatherings into public executions, love into dirty pictures. When that violence is finally given a field—on “Little Palaces”—it shoots out in all directions.

The number is built out of the cadences of an ancient Irish anticonscription ballad—suspicion, dread, and rage are all but coded in its melody. It’s the sort of illegal song that was meant to be sung on the street, and as Costello begins, edging up the stepped scale, he might be calling to you from an alleyway, ready to run at the first sign of the King’s troops. The instrumentation is minimal but deep; just a mandolin counterpointing the immediacy of Costello’s harsh acoustic guitar with a circling pattern, which carries a sense of timelessness, which against Costello’s doom-struck guitar means only dust to dust. But it’s the voice that cuts, that hurts: a voice of absolute powerlessness.

The social dislocation that has been taking shape in the other songs, the shadowy homelessness of every one of the characters, is inescapable here. The singer cries out against some great wrong, but while he makes the song impossible not to understand emotionally, the exact nature of the great wrong evades him, forcing him into poetry, away from the plain speech the Irish ballad was made for. Is “Chocolate Town” Hershey, Pa., or a black ghetto, or some thing else? Are the “little palaces” the blank blocks of English public housing, the “council tenancies” that Johnny Rotten damned to begin the punk critique which, in London in 1977, turned up Elvis Costello? Probably that’s what they are: “It’s like shouting in a matchbox, filled with plasterboard and hope,” Costello sings, “Like a picture of Prince William, in the arms of John the Pope”—and how is that like what?

The bits and pieces of the story Costello is telling in “Little Palaces,” and all across the lp—a story, it seems, about a class struggle that has decayed into a dull resentment, relieved by the glow of royalty—jar more than they register. The tale of dislocation is itself dislocated. “They’re moving problem families, from the south up to the north,” the singer tells you, but the agony in his voice, and the death sound of his guitar, carry the conviction you won’t hear him. In “the kingdom of the invisible” the class war goes on, but the old ballad form has been defeated: it’s as if the King himself has come to Ireland to recruit the troops for his next war, and who would say no to the King himself? In such a world, nothing is real; the reality of any place, any person, any emotion, is dissolved by the reality of power, which casts itself as love; Princess Di is Margaret Thatcher with a human face.

The mandolin spins the song to its end. Just as revolt is coded in its melody, so is acceptance, the acceptance of the powerlessness of its own voice. “I suppose, you need the sleep of the just,” Costello sings as King of America closes—sings it slowly, beautifully, as if the thought had cost him some thing—but while it’s clear that everyone on the album needs that rest, it’s also clear that no one deserves it. King of America is a song cycle of paradoxes, and also a curse.

Greil Marcus’ music column appears monthly in Artforum.