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A Prince, a King, and an American Without Tears

I don’t cry easily, but I came close when Prince died. I received the news as it broke, immediately blasted “Purple Rain” and allowed my mind to go blank for several minutes. The minutes turned into hours; as I came to mentally, I began to wonder if there was another artist whose scope of work was broad and durable enough to touch so many people at once.

The answer is nobody, but Elvis Costello comes close.

It had been awhile since I’d queued up King of America, perhaps the ultimate demonstration of Costello’s omnivorous mastery. A confident, comprehensive traipse through the prairies of Americana, it’s an aurally nimble and lyrically piercing album—and, for a certain quadrant of Costello fans, his very best. (I count myself among this flock.) Costello is forever willing to call out his own failings, to cleanse himself through introspective indictment. While “Indoor Fireworks” is a heart-wrenching tale of a love too incendiary to burn forever, “Brilliant Mistake” (the original humblebrag) and “Sleep of the Just” are perhaps the finest sequential bookends in the history of popular music.

On the latter tune — which, strangely, sounds like Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight” at a dirge’s pace — Costello sings from the perspective of a woman, with a slight lisp. The soldier he/she becomes smitten with wears a red bonnet, infusing the tune with a daring sense of sexual ambiguity. In this, one of rock’s more macho personalities stands aside Prince and David Bowie in his capacity to take love and lust to quarters both enlightened and taboo.

“Now you say that you’ve got to go. If you must, you must. I suppose that you need the sleep of the just.” So goes the song’s chorus. Let’s hope Costello’s with us for a lot longer.