"I wish you'd known me when I was alive," croons Elvis Costello, with a studied dissolution, on his new LP, Spike. He's referring, obliquely, to his celebrated death-and-rebirth dog and pony show of three years ago: After a ten-year career of almost unrelieved caustic energy, the onetime London computer programmer put his cruel nom de plume to rest and rechristened himself Declan Aloysius Patrick MacManus. His 1986 album, King of America, was credited to "The Costello Show." Compared to the baroque compression of his previous few records, it sounded like a wild and open prairie, with acoustic guitar as its main instrument; and when you listened to the words, you could hear Costello singing with a ragged grandeur:
I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense…
I was a fine idea at the time
Now I'm a brilliant mistake.
Costello, who came out of a musical generation of creeps and edgy nihilists, was the first, I think, to acknowledge the end of the era.
Texturally and thematically, King of America was a one-shot for Costello; true to form, he appeared again just eight months later with a noisy, high-tech song cycle, Blood and Chocolate, produced by old crony Nick Lowe. It sounded like a forgotten Kinks or Hollies record, or maybe just the Great Lost Costello Album. Costello was back writing pop songs with his old vicious charm, and it was probably this unshakable quality that denied him a hit single yet again. Unlike a lot of important rock artists, Costello has never been coy about his lack of Top 40 success: it frustrates the hell out of him. In an amusing symbol of his plea for universal recognition, he put the credits of Blood and Chocolate in Esperanto; the world didn't respond.
An unusual — unprecedented, actually — hiatus followed. Besides a scintillating British-only compilation of B-sides, Out of Our Idiot, Costello released nothing in 1987 or '88; the only news was that he was writing songs with Paul McCartney. Now we have Spike, his first record in two years, his first confessing to anything but the most marginal assistance in composition, and his first for Warner Bros. records. (Columbia, his previous label, apparently never recovered from his temporary, it turned out, name change.) Spike, one finds, is an exercise in songwriting prowess. It gives us a political polemic ("Tramp the Dirt Down") and a Browningian monologue ("God's Comic"); a simple, aching lost-love song ("Baby Plays Around") and just as beautiful a ballad about a quite different kind of love ("Satellite"); a charming profile of a witch who terrorizes children ("Miss Macbeth") and another of a lovably insane nursing-home resident ("Veronica"); and lots more. Spike's sprawling, if somehow still elegant, diversity is the album's message, ultimately: there comes a time when all you can do is practice your craft, keep doing the thing you fought so hard to earn the right to do. Costello's psyche has burned so fiercely over the last 10 or 12 years that his moments of catharsis have had a scary clarity — think of "Radio Radio," or "Man Out of Time." King of America and its urgent follow-up, taken together, were another, more final catharsis. Spike is the first we've seen of a new Elvis Costello, ready to practice what he's preached.
The McCartney influence is nil. In an interview in Musician, Costello said that the two McCartney collaborations on Spike, "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws," were songs he'd already half-finished by the time McCartney got involved, and that they weren't the best examples of their work together. (The real collaborative stuff will presumably appear on the upcoming McCartney album.) I'm relieved to hear it, because except for some nicely propulsive bass playing on "Veronica," McCartney's presence is hard to find. "Veronica" is a typically acid Costello number; the arrangement is jaunty and forgiving, but that doesn't erase the specter of senility hanging over the title character. The other Costello-McCartney song, "Pads, Paws and Claws," has the most inspired playing on the record — by an unearthly aggregation including Marc Ribot, Tom Waits's guitarist, and Jerry Scheff, the bassist in Elvis Presley's 60s backup band, TCB — but little else to recommend it.
The one unquestionably successful collaboration on Spike finds Costello working not with Paul McCartney but with one Cait O'Riordan, the bassist for the Pogues, who also happens to be the new Mrs. Costello. "Baby Plays Around" is sincere and unironic — both of these, in fact, to a greater degree than we've ever seen from Costello. (O'Riordan also cowrote "Lovable" on King of America and the borderline masterpiece "Tokyo Storm Warning" on Blood and Chocolate.)
If there are statements on the record, they are contained in "Let Him Dangle" and "Tramp the Dirt Down." "Dangle" is a dramatic — some would say melodramatic — retelling of a famous English murder case for the purpose of making an anti-capital-punishment statement. It's kinda white bread. The album's sublime moment, however, comes on "Tramp the Dirt Down," a savage and complex Costello polemic, in the tradition of "Shipbuilding" and "Peace in Our Time," against Margaret Thatcher. The verses are prolix denunciations, with trenchant metaphors ("When England was the whore of the world / Margaret was her madam") and friendly-fire attacks on the "pitiful discontent" that has opposed her ("You've only got the symptoms / You haven't got the whole disease"). The choruses, by contrast, are quiet and clear, with the singer praying for a long life so as to be able to perform the title action on Mrs. Thatcher's grave. This strong stuff wouldn't work without the song's calm, restrained production and Costello's expressive vocal. An extravagant folk instrumentation — including fiddle, bouzouki, and Uileann pipes and a low whistle, whatever they are — gives it a distant, weary Irish feel, like Paul Brady singing "The Lakes of Pontchartrain." In his singing, Costello is careful to evoke the tradition of the folk protest ballad; the lilt in his voice near the end of some lines recalls "The Ballad of Hattie Carroll."
"...This Town...," the album's opener, begins with a churning overture, then smashes into a warped, 1980s version of "Penny Lane," with the banker and barber replaced by thuggish, small-time entrepreneurs. It has a strong hook, and it leads off the album with a bang, but it's an unlikely single (and indeed, Warner hasn't yet released a 45 from the album). Another strong song is "God's Comic," which begins with the "I wish you'd known me when I was alive" line. The title and certain parts of the song are obvious homages to Randy Newman's "God's Song," from Sail Away, in which God delights in mankind's fecklessness and blind rituals of faith. Costello's version is an ornate tour de force, in which he plays off his own 1986 "death," Nietzsche's proclamation that "God is dead," the approach of Armageddon, and finally even the ambiguous grammar of the title.
Spike's other notable song is "Last Boat Leaving," which was originally a soundtrack number (for the movie The Courier). Melodically this is perhaps the strongest tune on the record, and it has a riveting chorus line that wouldn't have sounded out of place on the inventive Imperial Bedroom. It's notable as well for Costello's moody and attractive acoustic guitar playing. While he can be an awe-inspiring rhythm guitarist (when he wants to be), his solo excursions may often be mistaken for the fretwork of a man who is being electrocuted. On several tracks of Spike, notably "Last Boat Leaving" and "Baby Plays Around," he plays beautiful acoustic guitar figures, however; on the former, particularly, they anchor the song strikingly.
Indeed, the record is full of surprises, instrumentally, and it's easy to see why. Rather than merely choreographing the work of the Attractions — his fabulous backing band, absent here — Costello is working on this album with a striking array of musicians, even more than on the all-star King of America. Besides Jerry Scheff (who with his TCB mates played most of King of America), there's the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from New Orleans (who have a new record out on Columbia, Costello's old label); Tom Petty's keyboardist, Benmont Tench; Allan Toussaint playing piano on one song, Paul McCartney playing bass on another couple; Chrissie Hynde singing backup on yet another; Roger McGuinn on still yet another; and more than a dozen other players, including Jim Kelter on drums and T-Bone Burnett doing various utility work. Costello produced, along with sidekicks Burnett and Kevin Killen. Such a cast could result in confusion; here, however, it lends a compelling, almost virtuosic, authority.
What Spike has, then, is some striking songs and an impressive execution. It also, unfortunately, has some weak songs. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" has a portentous title and lyrics to match; the last verse, to put it bluntly, is as bad a sample of writing as I can think of right now. Costello's at his worst, I've always thought, when he's a self-conscious "songwriter": you can see him selecting a subject, charting his attitude toward it, and then writing away, being careful to inject some of that Costelloan acerbity in the process. There are a half-dozen songs on this 14-song album that fit this mold, and that's as many as have ever been on an Elvis Costello record (the disowned Goodbye Cruel World excepted).
So Spike, which may have seemed a simple round of songwriting in conception, actually turns out to have a deceptive dark side. Anger, cruelty, obstinance, arrogance, commitment — these are the things that have fueled Costello's work for a dozen years. He said good-bye to all that two years ago. Now "reborn" — which in a way is a code word for "grown-up" — he's fueled by… what? Mostly a desire to express himself, to do what he does best.
Which is fine and laudable; but a lot of people do that. Costello has finally come face-to-face with the demon of rock 'n' roll. Others have met him too. "So come on, you punks, stay young and stay high / Just give me my checkbook, and I'll crawl off and die," sang Peter Townshend, presciently, in 1976. The punks were his final subject: they fired up his muse one last time before he became irrelevant. (They had a similar effect on Neil Young, in Rust Never Sleeps, a few years later.) Costello saw the signs back in King of America: "I thought I heard 'The Workingman's Blues' / I went to work last night and wasted my breath." Finally, in exasperation, he sang to himself:
There's still life in your body
But most of it's leaving
Can't you give us all a break
Can't you stop breathing."
It's a terrible request, of course — an impossible one. So he keeps breathing, and writing songs about funny townspeople, and cute old insane women, and the "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror." Fine stuff, on the whole, but it's not about changing the world, or changing rock 'n' roll, or even about an anger at anything at all that just boils up inside you. That's what Costello used to do, and today other people do it — people like the members of Public Enemy, or Billy Bragg, or Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil, or Michelle Shocked, or even crazy Bono or Tracy Chapman. Together, they all represent the future of rock music. Elvis Costello doesn't anymore.