For practically a decade, Elvis Costello was the most prolific and penetrating of Britain's new wave-era singer-songwriters. From 1977 to 1986 Costello churned out 11 albums, including two in 1986, the superb King of America and the so-so Blood & Chocolate. Aside from 1987's Out of Our Idiot, the import-only compilation of rarities and B-sides, that's been it until Spike, his Warner Bros. debut, which is set to hit the shops today.
According to Costello's longtime manager, Jake Riviera, they listened to the album and decided it was so weird it was on par with something done by madcap musician Spike Jones. Another reference: veteran English comic Spike Mulligan. And, finally, they wanted a one-word title and liked the sound of the word.
It's interesting to note the two non-rock 'n' roll reference points, because Costello has been moving away from straight-ahead rock 'n' roll for some time. There was the Stax/Volt soul shadings of Get Happy!! and the country weepers of Almost Blue. When I met with Costello after a show at Cape Cod Coliseum in 1983, he was raving not about any new rock 'n' roll act, but the music of trumpeter Chet Baker. When I ran into him in a London pub two years later, Costello was most enthused about just seeing renowned accordionist Flaco Jiminez play a London club. And Costello had just begun to work with the Pogues, a punk band that dug deep into the Irish roots that Costello — ne Declan MacManus — could also claim.
For Spike, Costello's usual backing band, the Attractions, are gone, save the sporadic presence of drummer Pete Thomas. The contributors are nothing if not an eclectic batch — Paul McCartney, Roger McGuinn, co-producer T-Bone Burnett, the Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench, Christy Moore, Chrissie Hynde, De Dannan's Frankie Gavin, the Waterboys' Steve Wickham, wife (ex-Pogue) Caitlin O'Riordan, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Presley vet Jerry Scheff and more.
Spike (14 songs on LP, 15 on cassette and CD) is a topsy-turvy record that takes some time to assimilate — and gives ample evidence of Costello's ever-expanding musical vistas. The advance single, "Veronica" and the album kickoff, "...This Town...," are the most straightforward rockers. This, though, is more an album of experimentation — Celtic touches and big band brass parades; hard pop and dislocating (from trombone to scratch-funk guitar) arrangements.
This might be subtitled "The Many Sides of Elvis Costello." Here's a few more: Costello the romantically wounded balladeer ("Baby Plays Around," "Last Boat Leaving"), Costello the sharp social critic ("Tramp the Dirt Down," "Any King's Shilling," "Let Him Dangle"), Costello the big band leader (the all-instrumental, all-horn "Stalin Malone," the off-kilter, Salvation Army-styled "Miss Macbeth") and Costello the surrealist ("God's Comic"). Aside from "Let Him Dangle," a lurching, chilling take on capital punishment and mob mentality, there's nothing with the musical venom and punch of his early, work; Costello's anger — always well-shaped and targeted — is framed in more subtle ways, these. days.
As always, there are some delicious lyrical barbs, and some couplets that are classic Costello. From "Pads, Paws and Claws," one of two songs co-written with McCartney: "She pads, pads around the bedroom, practicing ways to flirt / He paws, pours another drink and anything in a skirt." From "Tramp the Dirt Down": "I saw a newspaper picture from the political campaign / A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously in pain / She spills with compassion, as that young child's face in her hands she grips / Can you imagine all that greed and avarice coming down on that child's lips?"
The she in question here is British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom Costello has taken to task before ("Shipbuilding"). Closing side one, it's the centerpiece of the disc, and, much like "Shipbuilding," it's a song of extreme emotion couched in a quiet setting. Donal Lunny contributes delicate acoustic guitar and bazouki; Davey Spillane adds low whistle and uillean pipes; Steve Wickham adds the mournful fiddle. As for Costello, he's crooning a tale of a Britain that's been betrayed by its right-wing leader.
Costello's hope? "Oh, I'll be a good boy, I'm trying so hard to behave / Because there's one thing I know, I'd like to live long enough to savour / That's when they finally put you in the ground / I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."