I have come to the conclusion that there is no concise way of reviewing Elvis Costello's new album Spike. Maybe it is incompetency oti my part, but even when the album fails, it is so exhaustingly intense that weird non-sequiturs start to spit out from my typewriter every time I get started. That is, every time except this one.
In The New York Times a couple of Fridays ago, Stephen Holden compared Costello to the Beatles. I know what he means; Spike has a classical depth that only one rock album in a thousand has. Sure, Costello had help from Paul McCartney's distinctive bass and, on "This Town," Roger McGuinn's jangling 12-string, but the point is that after ten years and too-many-to-count albums, his arrangements, lyrics, and production finally have the sophistication which was only potential on This Year's Model and My Aim Is True.
This new-found polish booms out with joy and serenity and, unlike much of Costello's previous work, sincerity. "Tramp the Dirt Down" saunters like a sombre Irish folk song. "This Town" sparkles with harmonized energy. While albums like Trust and Get Happy sought, for the most part, to emulate the spontaneous pulse of a live performance, Spike settles down to producing crisp, sometimes exhaltingly beautiful recordings.
Using an impressive set of session musicians and four international studios, Costello's songs are calmer, cooler than the angry-young-man yelp of "Radio Radio." Without gimmicks or flashy clothes or seventeen thousand million records sold, Costello has defined himself as an accomplished musician and songwriter.
Like I said earlier, Spike isn't perfect, as songs like the blurting "Chewing Gum" prove. But even those flawed cuts have an intangible and deliciously indelible force (sort of like a Jeff Koons sculpture or a Celine novel — you know it's good, you just don't quite feel it). I also think some of the album's celebrity cameos are overrated: Chrissie Hynde's harmonics on "Satellite" go over the top, bordering on pastiche, and "Pads, Paws, and Claws," co-written by Paul McCartney, sounds like audio doodling. Nonetheless, Spike is, in a long-term sense, Costello's most substantial album to date, which is all the more noteworthy in our trash-disco-dance-pop world of 1989 than it was when the songwriter got his post-punk start.