Elvis Costello's fans were nervous. After a decade of misanthropic, uncompromising, non-commercial albums for Columbia, Costello had changed labels, and Spike, his debut album for Warner Brothers featured a catchy, up-tempo single co-written with Paul McCartney. In addition, Costello's recent marriage gave fans some reason to believe he might be happy — a state seldom reflected in his songs.
"I used to be disgusted," Costello once wrote. "Now I try to be amused." Was Costello's new album going to be an effort at commercialism?
No need to worry. Spike is a trip to the heart of Costello country. When it comes to love, life and politics, he seems to be more disgusted than ever.
As always at Chez Costello, betrayal is the speciality of the house. Costello confronts sexual betrayal in "Baby Plays Around" and political betrayal (" When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam") is the subject of "Tramp the Dirt Down."
And perhaps Costello is talking about spiritual betrayal in "God's Comic," the oddest-even-for-Elvis song on the album. In the voice of a recently deceased nightclub comic, Costello describes what he called in an earlier song, a "very personal conversation with God." God, who is sitting on a waterbed, drinking as off-brand cola, "reading an airport novelette, listening to Andrew Lloyd-Weber's Requiem" (which he doesn't like as well as "the one about my son") tells the comic, "I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk..."
These three songs — as well as several others on the album — cannot be called rock 'n' roll or even rock. "Baby Plays Around" could be a cocktail jazz ballad. "Tramp the Dirt Down" is a majestic Celtic anthem.
This musical chameleon act continues throughout the record. The two McCartney/MacManus songs appear to be a seamless collaboration (Costello's real name is Declan MacManus). Both "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws," an endearingly goofy, particularly McCartneyesque song, benefit from the Costello edge and especially from the Costello vocals (although McCartney's signature screamettes of abandon are a delicious touch in "Pads."
Costello's vocal performance on Spike is remarkable — his work on "Any King's Shilling" is particularly so. The music resembles a lovely Irish lullaby, appropriately scored with Irish harp and tiompan, Uilleann pipes and fiddles. But the words ("...stay at home tonight if you know what's good for you..." deliver a menacing message. Costello's reading of these lyrics is at times disarmingly tender, at times cool and detached and at times psychotic.
But don't misunderstand what George Bush might call this rock 'n' roll thing. Costello can write as good a rock 'n' roll song as has ever been written. Several songs on this album have a beat, most notably "...This Town...," "Coal-Train Robberies," "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," which sounds as if it could be a cut from The Band's third album, and "Satellite," with Chrissie Hynde supplying Emmylou Harris-like high harmony.
But if Spike is not really a rock 'n' roll album, it certainly is not a "difficult" artist's commercial breakthrough either. Instead, Spike is the most recent work of an artist for whom rock 'n' roll is only one of many viable musical forms. Can Costello help it it the rest of us are nervous?