After an unusually long hiatus (a little more than two years), Mr. Prolific, Elvis Costello, returns to the album-making fold with a label switch and confusing set of songs.
If sheer quantity matters, Costello has crammed the CD and cassette versions of this album with about an hour's worth of material. The LP version is only one song shorter. It's hard to know what to make of this record. The first time I heard it, I hated it. It seemed long and boring.
Now, Costello always makes long albums. Where most acts are content to include 10 songs an album, he averages somewhere around 15. However, only one out of his 12 previous American album releases was certified boring: Goodbye, Cruel World, certainly an apt title.
Each of the 15 songs here is a gem. It's just too bad that they're all on the same album, because they seem to cancel one another out — something like hearing an airplane, a jackhammer and a vacuum cleaner all at the same time. For eclecticism, this album beats out Costello's Imperial Bedroom and even The Beatles' White Album. That resemblance to The Beatles may be the most important clue to unlocking this album. Elvis Costello
contains both the yin and yang of that group in himself.
Like John Lennon, he's an explosive, mercurial personality in real life and ' is an avid advocate of raw emotion and word play in his songwriting. Like Paul McCartney, with whom he collaborated on writing two of the songs here, he is capable of the fiercest rock and the tenderest balladry and likes arty experiments. The bothersome thing about it is, that my expectation (and probably that of many fans) is that Costello should lean to the straightforward rocking side of his personality, the side that produced such powerful albums as My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, Armed Forces and Get Happy.
Unlike, say, the Rolling Stones or Hob Dylan, he could be both melodic and biting. Rock didn't seem to hem in his harmonic choices at all, an amazing feat considering how limited a harmonic palette most rockers work with (most tend toward Stones rather than Beatles).
But those albums were a long time ago. Costello's musical offerings in the whole of the '80s have been more sedate, more musically complex and a tad closer to bloodlessness.
Spike seems to be an attempt to reconcile the various currents running through him, as well as an attempt to make money for himself and the record company. (He recently told Musician magazine that he's broke
and that he will be touring America solo because he can't afford to take a band out.)
From "This Town," a Beatle-ish tune that opens the album and features Roger McGuinn on electric 12-string and McCartney on bass (are you listening, '60s refugees?), to "Last Boat Leaving," a spare tune in which the protagonist leaves "this stinking town" and Costello closes the show, it's a roller coaster of emotion and odd textures.
Yet, there's only one flat-out rocker to be heard, "Coal-Train Robberies," which is not even included on the LP version.
"Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws" are his collaborations with McCartney. "Veronica," a sad tale of a woman catatonic in the wake of losing her love 65 years ago, is contrarily set to bouncy music. "Pads," on the other hand, has a rocking impulse that plays against some harsh avant-garde effects.
Most interesting is an instrumental, "Stalin Malone." It's a good piece of
written jazz with an excellent horn chart. It doesn't really go anywhere, but the point seems to be in the horn harmonics provided by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
And you have to admire a guy who'll sing a vitriolic song like "Tramp the Dirt Down," a hate letter to Margaret Thatcher, and make it sound so pretty. By the way, the second time I listened to this album, 1 loved it.