The man once known as Elvis Costello is finally stepping out from behind his disguises. He has formally dropped his brash stage name and returned to the one he was born with: Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus. And he has tossed out his "angry young man" pose and his murky new wave sound.
The new album "King of America" (Columbia FC 40173) is credited to "The Costello Show (featuring Elvis Costello)," but the songwriting and coproduction credits go to Declan MacManus. It is quite simply the clearest album MacManus has ever made: For the first time, you can hear every lyric, and the confessions of affection and heartache come through without the defensive qualifiers.
MacManus has always possessed an immense talent, but it now emerges unencumbered. His impatience with the illusions that prop up sour romances and corrupt politics now extends to the illusions that protect hip artists. The album is shot through with the feeling of release and relief that comes from abandoning camouflage and poses.
The inspiration for this new record clearly comes from the solo acoustic tour of America MacManus made in 1984. When he stood alone on stage at Constitution Hall that April, he delivered his songs without the protection of a trendy sound or a controversial persona, and they seemed all the more powerful.
The opening act on that solo tour was T-Bone Burnett, the much underrated American singer-songwriter. The two artists struck up a friendship and agreed that Burnett should produce MacManus' farewell album to Elvis Costello. Because the Costello persona was the product of Britain's trend-mongering pop scene, it was appropriate that this new album be a thoroughly American record.
MacManus' biggest heroes and influences have always been American musicians, so in a strange way, this record is a return to his roots. The album was recorded in Los Angeles with some legends of Amerian music: New Orleans R&B drummer Earl Palmer, jazz bassist Ray Brown, cajun accordionist Jo-El Sonnier and three members of Elvis Presley's TCB Band -- guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Sheff and drummer Ron Tutt. MacManus' British band, the Attractions, appears on only one song.
MacManus crams 57 minutes of music onto one disc -- more than many double albums -- and the 15 songs range across the American landscape: from surrealist Dylanisms to hopped-up rockabilly to soul ballads. The unassuming pleasure in the competence and breadth of the music recalls the heyday of the Band.
One of the album's two nonoriginal tunes is the first single: the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," a clear break with the Elvis Costello persona that seemed to seek out misunderstanding at times. A jaunty marimba hook by Tom Waits' Michael Blair gives the song a fresh feel, and MacManus pleads soulfully over Mitchell Froom's Hammond organ: "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good."
On the album's first song, "Brilliant Mistake," MacManus says his past persona seemed like "a fine idea at the time. Now it's a brilliant mistake." Firmly pushed by two members of the Hall & Oates band, MacManus claims that Costello "thought he was the king of America, but it was a boulevard of broken dreams." Later on the same side, he admits, "If they had a king of fools, then I would wear the crown." And on the black-and-white cover, he wears a costume-shop crown above his tousled Bohemian beard.
His jaundiced view of the pop music industry is summed up in "Glitter Gulch," which compares the business to an Old West brothel. Motored by the TCB Band, the song is a fast rockabilly shuffle that resembles the breathless blue of Costello's career. The protagonist, "known by several different names," is tempted by Madame X: "We've got prizes if you can afford some small humiliation." Instead the protagonist promises to "howl down the whole hotel."
In addition to breaking with his own persona, MacManus has also come through a painful divorce. Some of the best songs on the album are addressed to his ex-wife, not with bitterness but with bewilderment that it took them so long to face up to the truth.
The very best song is "Indoor Fireworks," which extends an analogy between fireworks and a relationship much as Smokey Robinson would. Over an admirably restrained ballad arrangement, MacManus delivers one of his best vocals ever. His breathy, smoky voice travels across the elegant melody with a sober understanding of how the sparks of passion become the sparks of conflict.
In the same vein is "Poisoned Rose," which he sings like a jazz standard over Ray Brown's melodic bass line. Both the wide-ranging melody and dramatic vocal recall the mid-'50s work of Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, though the lyric recalls Bob Dylan.
"Little Palaces" is a sparse, folkish song with MacManus on mandolin; it relentlessly describes the way working-class parents take out their frustrations by beating up their kids.
This is not necessarily MacManus' best album, though it is certainly his best since 1981's "Trust." At times, the record seems overly diffuse and tentative, as if MacManus were feeling out his new freedom and trying different things just to get the hang of them. If he persists in this new quest for straightforward, well-rooted songs, his best work is ahead of him.