King Of America
The context: By 1986—not even 10 years into his solo recording career—Elvis Costello had already sped across the map and back, from straight-ahead rock (My Aim Is True) to expensively arranged adventures (Imperial Bedroom). Appropriately, King Of America came between the cheesy mess of Goodbye Cruel World and Blood & Chocolate, the most instantly gratifying rock record he's ever made. For all but one track on King, Costello temporarily ditched his raucous backing trio, The Attractions, and longtime producer Nick Lowe, in favor of a country-tinged backing band (dubbed The Costello Show) and producer T-Bone Burnett, who'd already worked with rootsy musicians as diverse as Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos.
The greatness: Costello wasn't new to dabbling in country sounds, having fronted a country-rock band before going solo and craftily borrowed from Americana on most of his early albums. He's so confident with it on this album that it often sneaks by without notice, and his approach to his persona is just as restrained. Costello spent the early years of his career trying to prove what a vengeful shit he could be, but by 1986 he seemed comfortable admitting that he's just a bitter romantic, and thanks to the dry, subdued arrangements, it never sounds like he's trying to prove anything about himself. Without The Attractions' muscle behind it, everything from the unconditional (well, as Costello songs go) declaration of love "I'll Wear It Proudly" to "Sleep Of The Just" (which closes the album with an ominous scene of a group of soldiers courting a girl in their barracks) leaves Costello's songwriting almost naked. If that wasn't enough to minimize Costello as a musician, he credits his own guitar parts to "The Little Hands Of Concrete."
Definitive song: Costello may be admired more for biting wit than for storytelling, but "American Without Tears" is the climax of an album that masters both. How many songwriters can comment that "On TV they prosecute anyone who's exciting," then slip into a World War II-era love story without sounding idiotic? It's plainspoken enough to be anyone's favorite country ballad, but it still gives Costello room to say everything he wants to say.