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This week’s pick: “American Without Tears,” released on King of America (1986)
Gary Stewart: Nothing from the Elvis Costello songbook seems more appropriate for the week of July 4th than this track, an evocatively crafted song about the immigrant experience/adventure in post-war U.S.A., from an album titled King of America. That record introduced so many listeners to the concept of Americana. And yes, it was made by an Englishman.
King of America features legendary American musicians like guitarist James Burton and bassist Jerry Scheff—who both have long and storied careers with early-American rock and roots music, including sessions with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, and Ricky Nelson—and Cajun legend Jo-El Sonnier, whose accordion playing is front and center on this, driving the waltz tempo and bittersweet tone. These are just some of the elements that helped Costello master a form he started experimenting with for the then-radical (for an artist considered punk rock in 1981) country music album Almost Blue.
Even though he was already hailed as one of the great modern songwriters ten years (and ten albums) into his career, “American Without Tears” shows how far he’d come and how much further he’d be going. You get an enormous (but not excessive) amount of description for a four-and-a-half-minute song, but enough leeway to be a co-creator of sorts—you can fill in the rest of the details of this story.
“American Without Tears” is reportedly based on a true story—an immigrant experience told through the eyes, ears, and experiences of two G.I. brides trying to make sense of a new world. It so vividly conveys a sense of time and place that you feel like you’re watching a great period piece. You can almost see the saturated colors and hear street sounds.
E.C. often referred to King of America as his favorite album—and for all the right reasons. It would inform a large part of the work he’d do afterwards, including multiple collaborations with producer T Bone Burnett. But more importantly, it shows all the possibilities and promises of Americana before it became susceptible to many of the generic tendencies that often defangs the form today.
Elvis himself was so intrigued with the song, and where the story was going, that he wrote and recorded “American Without Tears No. 2 .” We’re still waiting for No. 3.
David Gorman: The story of the G.I. brides is beautifully rendered, but there’s another level to the song that elevates it beyond the usual third-person ballad-of-so-and-so songs, no matter how wonderful those can be. He’s telling their story very much through his own eyes and experience, not simply leaving it up to us folks on the other side of the speaker to find a way in. By bookending their story with the first-person experience of hearing it and reacting to it, “American Without Tears” becomes something beautifully intimate.
It’s a story told the way friends tell each other stories in personal conversation. And as an American immigrant’s tale, it takes on even more weight and depth when an experience crosses generations like this. Another aspect of this song worth contemplating as we light up the fireworks, wave our flags and crank up the Sousa, is that leaving home, no matter where home was or how much promise America offers, still comes with some loss and sadness. I, for one, would like to think the U.S. of A. has more to offer emigrating English folk than gum, pantyhose and colorfully crude language, but the lyrics remind you that people come here for a variety of reasons—love, hope, freedom, opportunity—but that doesn’t mean that every aspect of America can be classified as dream-worthy (and there goes my chance at the 2016 nomination).
But enough about the story. The music is flat-out gorgeous and, as usual, quietly brilliant. Without drawing attention to itself, the song goes from something distinctly and uniquely American to something nostalgically English.
It kicks off with a gentle country sway and a subtly aching Cajun accordion melody at the chorus (lest you forget this song is set in New Orleans, that most American of cities), that, by the song’s end, builds into into a wordless pub singalong you’d expect from a Carling-soaked crowd of ex-pats at closing time. And that bit will stick in your head for days. Maybe even when the red, white, and blue explosions are popping overhead as we celebrate our own collective break from the United Kingdom.
Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie? Well, this ain’t exactly your 4th Of July Picnic soundtrack, but there’s plenty to celebrate in our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist: