Pay the price of attention and enter Elvis Costello's Magic Theater, a dazzling display of musical and political styles united by a simultaneously bitter and compassionate point of view.
At first, Spike seems schizophrenic. But the key is its diversity, which spans the rich pop of "Veronica" (a collaboration with Paul McCartney and, with odd resonance, kind of an update of "Eleanor Rigby"); the cosmic rockabilly of "Pads, Paws, and Claws" (the other McCartney collaboration); the bluesy "God's Comic"; and the teary, naked "Baby Plays Around."
There's a pastoral feeling to several tunes, especially the more overtly political ones, such as "Tramp the Dirt Down" (a sad, angry blast at Margaret Thatcher's Britain) and the almost unbearably wistful "Last Boat Leaving," which gives Spike a nostalgic, despairing note.
For the most part, Costello shelves the dazzling wordplay that marked some of his best albums (especially This Year's Model and Armed Forces) in favor of straightforward storytelling. "Chewing Gum," one of several cuts about dashed expectations and deceit, is a jagged, obscure jump song. The nervy, CD-only "Coal-Train Robberies" features a Third World news flash of constantly shifting viewpoint. It's sandwiched between the lovely Irish-uprising memoir "Any King's Shilling" and "Last Boat Leaving" — songs of similar tempo and attitude — and gives this organic-sounding CD more vitality than the vinyl version.
The songs build upon one another, each one giving the preceding depth and drama. "This Town" launches a bitter attack at entrepreneurs. Its dominant images are those of the piano man as leper, of the Babbitt whose poverty is his stigma, of the "Fish-Finger King" who lives on "Self-Made Man Row." "This Town" packs the punch of "Pump It Up," but it's wise without being wisecracking.
For the rich, funky "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," Costello and his wife, former Pogue Cait O'Riordan, traveled to New Orleans to enlist the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and legendary pianist Allen Toussaint. The latter applies precise, churchy filigree to this devotional love song about the consequences of deceit. The production is reverential without being musty, and Toussaint's piano sounds positively fruity.
The pivotal points, however, are "Miss Macbeth," an acid portrayal of an old, witchy woman; the dreamy, ambiguous "Satellite"; and the forked "Stalin Malone." "Miss Macbeth" evokes Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in its psychedelic vaudeville and its evocation of childhood haunts and imagery, while "Satellite" again discloses Costello's fascination with imagery and electronics. (Note how "Miss Macbeth" vamps on Costello's real name, Declan MacManus).
"Stalin Malone" is an instrumental on the disc, but Costello has provided lyrics on the insert. Packed with horns and percussion, it's swinging and jovial, and might have been written by Hollywood chartmaster Shorty Rogers in the late '50s. The phantasmagoric lyrics suggest an all-knowing Big Brother whose time is about to come.
Spike is a unified work about exploration, about looking at a world grown disturbing and alienating. Costello has reclaimed his eminence as rock's best reporter, one of the premier documentarians of a universe that goads, saddens, and amuses him.