Second posting about this artiste in quick succession.  But this time it doesn’t feature his inital backing band and it only highlights how even two ICAs wouldn’t really do justice.

There are times when its the music that makes a song so utterly fantastic. Then there are other times when its the lyrics that make a song so utterly memorable. And just sometimes, both music and lyrics are as stunning as the other…

in 1986, the LP King Of America was released. It was the tenth LP in the career of Elvis Costello, and for the first time in seven years he hadn’t relied on the talents of The Attractions. Instead, it was a record released by The Costello Show featuring the Attractions and Confederates. Another change was that the songs were credited to Declan McManus, the singer’s real as opposed to stage name.

The Confederates were not a band as such, but instead a collection of top session musicians, most of whom had played and recorded with Elvis Presley. Some folk reckon its this fact that led to the songs not being credited to the be-spectacled Elvis….

Now I’m no great expert on every recording made by Elvis Costello, but I usually argue that this is the best LP he ever made. It’s a truly stunning bit of work that contains lyrics that go in many different directions – there’s the bitter and twisted, the poetically lovely, the hilarious put-downs and the occasional bit of self-deprecation – all underscored by some of the best and most varied music he would ever commit to one LP. As evidenced by the words to Brilliant Mistake, the LP’s opener:-

He thought he was the King of America
Where they pour Coca Cola just like vintage wine
Now I try hard not to become hysterical
But I’m not sure if I am laughing or crying

I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this hurtin’ feeling disappear
Like it was common sense
It was a fine idea at the time
Now it’s a brilliant mistake

She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use
Her perfume was unspeakable
It lingered in the air
Like her artificial laughter
Her mementos of affairs

“Oh” I said “I see you know him”
“Isn’t that very fortunate for you”
And she showed me his calling card
He came third or fourth and there were more than one or two

He was a fine idea at the time
Now he’s a brilliant mistake

He thought he was the King of America
But it was just a boulevard of broken dreams
A trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals
The words of love in whispers
And the axe of love in screams

I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this lovin’ feeling disappear
Like it was common sense

I was a fine idea at the time
Now I’m a brilliant mistake

This would stand alone as a near perfect bit of poetry – and like so many of the best poems, it has a number of interpretations.

EC himself in an interview in 1986 said:-

“Brilliant Mistake is a sad song, but it’s also sort of funny. It’s about America and it’s about lost ambition, not lack of inspiration. It’s about a disappointed or frustrated belief. It’s a song that people are going to read wrong. One line in it is, ‘There’s a trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals.’ It means celluloid and mirrors, movie cameras. It occurred to me the other day that people will think it’s a reference to cocaine. “

However, a more commonly held view was that Elvis was in the midst of a very painful and messy divorce, and that the heart of the song was a criticism of himself and his behaviour.

mp3 : The Costello Show – Brilliant Mistake

Now I make no apologies for adding a second song to this post – another from the LP and the track that I believe is the best he’s ever recorded:-

mp3 : The Costello Show – Little Palaces

This is basically a solo song – the acoustic guitar and mandolin are played by Elvis, with just a hint of string bass to back it up, played by Jerry Scheff. The closing few minutes of this song often bring a tear to my eye – the raw and powerful images invoked by the lyric and the traditional almost folk-like music.

I remember also when this LP was released that many long-time fans thought this would be the end of The Attractions. But instead, within six months, another LP – Blood & Chocolate – was released, and this was a bona fide band record.

And sometimes I think that just might be the best EC album……

Happy Listening.


  1. I am not a massive EC fan but these 2 lps are brilliant and the fact they came inly 6 months apart … Has he ever had a better songwriting period? From the same lp indoor fireworks gets me every time. On balance B &C just pips it as my fav

  2. ‘King of America’ and ‘Blood & Chocolate’ are undoubtedly amongst Costello’s finest works, though I continue to bang the drum loud and long for ‘Imperial Bedroom’ too.

  3. These two are probably his best albums by any means, must admit though that Almost Blue is the best country album I’ve ever listened to – with in my mind his very, very best song ever put as a single b-side: Psycho. Now that’s a killer song. “you think I’m psycho don’t you mama”. Shivers, every time.

  4. Somewhere out there on t’net (as JC calls it) are versions of EC and Bruce Springsteen performing EC’s Brilliant Mistake and BS’s Brilliant Disguise together. Worth a listen. Love this song but it’s always been EC & the ATTRACTIONS for me. Costello has released lots of worthwhile music since but Blood & Chocolate is the last LP of his I truly loved.

  5. Objectively, I can agree with everything you say about these two albums representing a high point in Costello’s career, JC. But as you say, they’re both essentially break-up albums and pretty bleak in places. I’d always plump for the feel-good, still-in-love pop thrills of Punch The Clock as my own personal favourite (although even that has its darker side… it is Costello, after all!).

  6. King of America is No. 2 on my list of Costello albums behind Get Happy!! Lots of spirited talk here about two great albums back to back, but I think we should also think about what a leap he made to get from the lows of Goodbye Cruel World to perhaps his best work.

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