Elvis Costello's sprawling new Spike is just the kind of record critics love. It's got voluminous lyrics with a liberal bent, touches on a wide array of musical styles and has plenty of guest stars.
But don't let that scare you.
Spike may be a difficult record to grasp, and Costello sometimes takes himself Too Seriously, but there's plenty of treasures here for the people with the patience to sift through them.
Most fascinating is Costello's new songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney. "Veronica" is just what you'd hope from such a partnership: an intelligently written song about an old woman reliving her life in dreams, married to a breezy arrangement reminiscent of "Baby You're a Rich Man."
The other MacManus-McCartney song, "Pads, Paws and Claws," is a rockabilly number that suffers from a cluttered arrangement.
"...This Town...," a booming rocker highlighted by Roger McGuinn's guitar and McCartney's bass, lampoons the "Wall Street" syndrome of success at all costs. It's one of Costello's most infectious songs.
Costello's vitriol is sharp on "Tramp the Dirt Down," where his fantasy is to dance on Margaret Thatcher's grave. "God's Comic," about a former vaudeville comedian meeting his maker, is funny in a warped sort of way.
"Baby Plays Around," which Costello co-wrote with his wife, Cait O'Riordan, is delicately beautiful. Its straightforward, emotional lyrics also highlight Costello's weakness elsewhere — his tendency to run off at the mouth.
His lyrics are easily among the most intelligent in music today, but he still has trouble simply telling a story. In the funky "Chewing Gum," he can barely spit out the words fast enough. And the stately melody of "Satellite" is marred by lyrics that don't quite connect. What exactly is he trying to say about love in the '80s?
An artist who challenges his listeners, of course, is always better than someone who panders to them. There's no pandering on Spike. Costello takes his listeners on a trip through rock, jazz, funk, Irish music and ballads.
The ride's not always smooth, but it's never boring.