First, he purloined the King's name. Next, he enthroned himself on a Cincinnati barstool, whence he proceeded to bark racial slurs about American pop heroes until Bonnie Bramlett summoned the well-aimed good taste to punch him out. For an encore, Elvis Costello has recorded an album made up solely of country-music standards. With Billy Sherrill at the controls, in Nashville. Is this just the latest in a series of Americaphobic insults, or a genuine attempt to win back some old fans in the New World? The answer seems even gauzier after listening to "Almost Blue." Nick Lowe, who produced "Trust" for Costello early this year, once penned the lines, "I made an American squirm / And it felt so right." In the context of the song, it was an affectionate noogie on America's cultural noggin. But Costello, notoriously mumpish, is hardly the person to hold the mirror steady, the better for us to giggle at our own flawed image. "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" opens the album, and right off the bat it's clear that Sherrill has put his lustery all into the production. Costello's thin, quavery voice, perfect for the bruxisms and jarrings of New Wave, is not a smooth vehicle for the Hank Williams pining and soulful hand-wringing. But so softly arbored is it among Sherrill's gentle shadings and lush colors that the incongruity seems an innovation until a brighter, starker song ("Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down") comes along. One is always treading some tightrope of faith with Costello: What does he really mean by that? has become the sutra of his career. It is just this sort of ambiguity, in fact, that gave "Trust" a fine, sharp edge and made it his best work so far. Costello wants us to distrust him; he depends upon our lack of faith, in each other and especially in him. Yet, as any country-music fan will admit, there is nothing covert about the form, nothing sinister or misleading in its straightforward themes of the heart and its simple, time-worn structures. Costello has carried his unspoken insistence on wariness into a genre that traditionally throws caution aside to bare its very soul, and this startles and hurts. On "Sweet Dreams" and "Too Far Gone," one hears the crack in Costello's voice and associates it with the pain and heartache that is the rightful property of such songs. When that same hoarseness shows up again and again, and on songs one cannot imagine Costello feeling, the doubts begin to slither in. "She changed her name from Brown to Jones / And mine from Brown to Blue," he sings, with such a practiced, jaundiced rattle that one's eyes widen at the cynicism of it. Costello, after all, has been a front-gunner in the sex wars for a long time. His own lyrics routinely obscure the lines between love and hate, sexual insecurity and simple misogyny. Are we to believe he could be so easily trampled by romantic injustice, by the traditional sting and petty conformities of divorce? Tirelessly, Sherrill keeps sweetening the bile, no more an accomplice than the mother who grooms her bratty child impeccably, knowing he'll still be the horror of the birthday party. By the end of the album, Sherrill looms like some kind of angel in country music's billowy, forgiving heaven. Maybe some of this is imagined: With Costello, there's always that possibility. He does seem to have learned something about phrasing and restraint, or at least to have applied it here. But "Almost Blue" is, like its title, disturbing and depressing; it breathes in and out the feeling (and not-feeling) of attending the funeral of a casual acquaintance. Worse, Cos Costello has invaded the trusting soul of country music and made a mean-spirited mess of it. I don't expect him to have shame about this; I just want him to go home. THE ALBUM -- Elvis Costello, "Almost Blue," FC 37562.