What does Elvis think he is doing?!? What's the deal with the garish cover? Why did he print the lyrics to one, and only one, song on the back of the album? Why does that song turn out to be an instrumental that Elvis doesn't even play on?
These questions, and a number of others tumbled through my brain as I listened to Elvis Costello's Spike, for the first time. After thirteen albums of inspired but generally coherent music, had Elvis' neurons suddenly started firing in the wrong order? Worry not. This album is proof that with or without a sound mind, Elvis Costello can continue to be brilliant.
It is a hard task to give an overview of an album like this. The adjective that immediately springs to mind is eclectic. Spike seems to feature a new style for each successive song, it involves more musicians than your average charity record, and it includes arrangements as diverse as a brass band and traditional Irish folk instruments.
What does this add up to? It adds up to fourteen very different songs, the majority of which are quite worth the listen.
Notable on this album are "Chewing Gum," and "Stalin Malone," the two songs that prominently feature The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The first has Elvis orchestrating an infectious funk groove with horns, guitars, and assorted odd percussion.
The second is an instrumental (with printed lyrics) that shows Elvis to be quite capable at writing and arranging for a horn section.
Elvis has two collaborations with Paul McCartney on Spike. The first of these, "Veronica," is a truly wonderful pop song that may be the highpoint of the album. It moves effortlessly from catchy upbeat verses to soaring choruses and back again. Although the McCartney influence is not that easily recognizable, there is something about the upbeatness of the verses that bespeaks the presence of the ex-Beatle.
"Pads, Paws and Claws," the other Costello/McCartney collaboration is a bizarre song for Elvis, and sounds like nothing Paul has ever been associated with. It opens with a cat sound followed by a distorted Costello scream.
This goofball song (comparing a flirtatious woman to a cat) lurches forward with some of the strangest instrumentations you may have the opportunity to hear for quite a while. Included in this chaotic stew of a song is a guitar somehow creating an incessant "boinging" sound.
Also notable is "Miss Macbeth" a chilling song that starts with an atmospheric yet frenetic background of fiddles, guitars, mandolins and assorted exotic instruments. Over this urgent noise Elvis delivers the opening several lines without regard to the rhythm of the instrumentalists. This breaks with a horn flourish, and is followed by a quirky pop song about Miss Macbeth, who may or may not be a witch. The mood here is alternately upbeat and sinister.
It would be easy to spend pages describing each and every song on this album. It is much harder to describe the record as a whole because the only common thread to be found seems to be a commitment to diversity.
Elvis manages this in part by gathering an incredible collection of guest musicians; one song features Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), Cait O'Riordan (The Pogues), T Bone Burnett and Paul McCartney.
He also works at the music from many different angles. The traditional Irish folk sound of "Any King's Shilling," the sparse and dark sound (reminiscent of "I Want You" from Blood and Chocolate) of "Let Him Dangle," and the splendid pop of "Veronica" are but a sampling.
Lyrically Elvis fills this, as all his other records with stunning (albeit sometimes confusing) images. In "God's Comic" he has God declaring "I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk and wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys." In "Satellite" he describes an awkward socialite, "She looked like she learned to dance from a series of still pictures."
The end effect is an album that takes a little getting used to, but will never lull the listener to sleep. It is as if by shifting gears continuously, Elvis is asking for each song to be given the fullest of attention. In my opinion, most of them are well worth it.