Review of Spike
Sounds, 1989-02-11
- Peter Kane

A man for all seasons

461x500 (36K)
ELVIS: OUT of sight

ELVIS COSTELLO 'Spike' (WEA WX238/CD) ****

IN BRETT Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, the benumbed narrator, Clay, spends a great deal of time sprawled beneath an old 'Trust' period Costello poster on his bedroom wall. It's the nearest the character ever gets to voicing actual disaffection with the way things are.

He's attracted, we assume, as much by the '60s suited, skinny-tied outsider image as anything within the songs themselves. In those days, Elvis was still with The Attractions and making almost conventional bass drums, guitar pop records. It was so much easier, wasn't it?

Since then, the only predictable thing about Costello has been his unpredictability. His last two albums, both from 1986, may have continued to pile on the agony, but they did it in very different ways. On the surface, 'King Of America' was deeply textured and fully confident in its handling of rock, country and Irish folk, with strands of cajun and Tex Mex thrown in. 'Blood And Chocolate', just a few months later, went straight for the throat: an angry, sneering, rough-house return to basics. Whatever next?

Those looking for instant gratification have long since given up on Costello, of course. But 'Spike' rewards the faithful with a diversity of range that defies easy categorisation and a Iyrical prowess that puts him just about out of sight of the competition.

Occasionally, he's still prepared to take shelter under pop's umbrella; like on the superficially carefree 'Veronica' which is co-written with Paul McCartney, as is 'Pads, Paws And Claws', a snarling shuffle of bedroom games. For the rest, he wears whatever hat takes his fancy.

On 'Baby Plays Around', wounds are opened up for public inspection with just an acoustic guitar and very distant organ. 'Deep Dark Truthful Mirror' has some of that old Allen Toussaint rolling piano. It also features The Dirty Dozen Brass Band who make a number of appearances, not least on the instrumental 'Stalin Malone', done in an authentically Tom Waits broken bar-stool style.

'Any King's Shilling', perhaps the record's best song features the piteous beauty of Davy Spillane's Uilleann pipes in the sharpest of contrasts.

Costello's subject matter is no less varied. There's mail order brides ('Chewing Gum'); one in the neck for bring-back-the-noose lobbyists ('Let Him Dangle'); and the usual laments for this nation of ours, or rather what remains after most of it has been given away. 'Last Boat Leaving' is the little man being resigned to his fate while 'Tramp The Dirt Down' comes out screaming and fighting despite its traditional sounding, folkish air. You don't have to make a noise just to get yourself heard.

And there's plenty more. 'This Town' is full of Runyonesque characters on the make, warning that "You're nobody, 'til everybody. . .thinks you're a bastard" and 'God's Comic', too, is a richly detailed fantasy.

The sleeve bears the man's half-black, half-white head on a plaque with an inscription that reads, 'The Beloved Entertainer'. This is one show that must go on.