If first impressions really are the most lasting, Elvis Costello is probably still kicking himself for the way he barged into the American rock consciousness.
Even though his songwriting grows richer and more assured with every passing year, he still finds himself the victim of an image he outgrew shortly after his 1978 single "Alison." That may be part of the reason he presents himself in clownish face paint on the cover of Spike (Warner Bros. 9 25848-2) — anything for a little distance.
But it will take more than makeup to undo the effects of Costello's old image.
It wasn't that he made a bad impression, really (though there are those who still refuse to forgive him the drunken, racially inflammatory slurs he once voiced in a bar fight with Bonnie Bramlett).
In fact, it was quite the opposite. After almost a decade of fatuous arena rock ground out by empty-headed rock stars, Costello's appearance as rock's Angry Young Twerp couldn't have been more timely. Lambasting the likes of Boston as "an accountant's wet dream," Costello was precisely sort of cynical, sneering icon new wave rock needed to beat back the mindless dinosaurs of the hard rock mainstream.
And for countless fans, all it took was a single glance at his thrift-shop suit, Buddy Holly glasses and hunched posture to recognize a kindred spirit. When it came to targeting the anger and malaise of his generation, Costello's aim was true.
Even more appealing was the revved-up sound generated by Costello and his band, the Attractions. As adept at C&W or the clipped cadences of white R&B as at punk and garage rock, the Attractions were in many ways the perfect new wave rhythm section, able to deliver in pure music what other bands only promised as attitude.
But the Attractions' sound was ultimately as limiting as Costello's original image, and attempts to push past those limits — whether through the ill-intentioned pop of Goodbye, Cruel World in '84 or the brash impressionism of Blood and Chocolate two years later — invariably came up short. Elvis and the Attractions were beginning to verge on self-parody, and that seemed to pain no one so much as the singer himself.
So with Spike, Costello exercises his only real option, and starts virtually from scratch. Gone are the Attractions, having been replaced by a revolving and astonishingly eclectic cast of supporting musicians; gone too are Costello's romantic recriminations, with real-life politics taking the place of the "emotional fascism" that fueled his early output. On the whole, it sounds like a whole new Elvis for this album.
Granted, this isn't the first time he's taken that tack; his King of America album even saw him trying to shed the very name Costello and revert to his birth name, Declan MacManus. Spike, though, not only provides Costello with a makeover that will stick, but allows him the artistic latitude to make his most significant statement in years.
Not that anyone's likely to notice this improvement right away, for Spike isn't the sort of album that makes itself plain on the first few plays. For one thing, the album's sound is almost maddeningly obtuse, drawing on everything from brassy New Orleans funk to the melancholy strains of Irish traditional music; for another, Costello's lyrical perspective is so slyly subversive that the underlying intent of his songs often seems to wait in ambush for the listener.
Part of that is simply a matter of Costello's mischievous wit. Who else would have generated a title as bitingly evocative as "Stalin Malone," only to record the song as an instrumental? What other pop artist would record the Byrds' Roger McGuinn together with former Beatle Paul McCartney (as Costello does in "...This Town...") and wind up with an instrumental track that doesn't seem nostalgic in the slightest?
Beyond such flippery, though. Costello cuts deep with the songs on this album, both in the melodic and thematic sense. Even though two of the tunes on Spike were co-written by McCartney, there's little here as instantly accessible as such back numbers as "Alison" or "Oliver's Army." "Veronica," the first McCartney collaboration, undermines its supple melody with a lyrical portrait far more disturbed than anything "Eleanor Rigby" might have suggested, while the other, "Pads, Paws and Claws," presents itself with the sort of rough-edged primitivism no one would ever connect with McCartney's melodic fastidiousness.
But that tendency to play a song against its own expectations is all too typical of Spike. Where once his songs were as straightforward as a slap in the face. Costello's current work sees melody more often a means than an end.
"Tramp the Dirt Down," for instance. uses its lilting Irish verse and understated chorus to make the lyric's venom all the more potent, giving the singer's enmity toward British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a bitter calm that's more chilling than anger could ever be. Nor is that the only way he twists that particular sound, for "Any King's Shilling" pulls an almost duplicitous resonance from its Irish traditional elements as it makes its oblique criticism of British colonialism.
There's a wealth of meaning folded into the gaps between the words and the music here, much more than any one listener can extract. To some extent, that may be just as well — "God's Comic" will likely strike most fundamentalists as making The Last Temptation of Christ seem positively reverent — but over all, the album offers the keen-eared plenty to hear, and the sharp-witted more than an album's worth of sharp ideas.
And while that's not likely to afford Costello the new image he needs, it ought to go a long way toward making his fans, at least, forget the old one.