Somewhere along the line, Elvis Costello became a respected figure.
This certainly wasn’t the case back in 1977, when the spectacled neo-punk burst onto the American music scene with an album that boldly declared “Elvis is King” just months after the death of another famous Elvis.
But witness the company he keeps in 1989. Paul McCartney, Jim Keltner, Chrissie Hynde and Roger McGuinn to name a few.
It’s no surprise then, that Costello’s new album Spike is a rich and varied piece of work with arrangements and influences that Talking Heads would envy.
Elvis’ first set of new material in three years finds him without his long-time backers, the Attractions. Instead, Spike features such diverse instruments as the Bouzouki, Magic Table and even an Olds Hubcap to flesh out some strong melodies.
With the release of King Of America three years ago, Elvis re-dubbed himself Declan MacManus, his given name. In an interview he touted as his last ever, he proceeded to ‘come clean’ by burying his previous outings, not praising them. This new found honesty rang somewhat false, as he adopted another identity six months later for the Blood and Chocolate project. Musically, the new disc is more of a successor to King of America, but on nearly half of the 15 songs (14 for you dinosaurs who buy albums), MacManus draws inspiration from his Irish ancestry, proving that he may just mean it after all.
Despite the apparent softening of this revolutionary Elvis by his marriage to ex-Pogue Cait O’Riordan, the customary Elvis bile reigns on “This Town”. While McGuinn, McCartney and Costello lay down a psychedelic backdrop, Elvis sends up what passes for entertainment these days, concluding that “You’re nobody ‘til everybody in this town thinks you’re a bastard.”
But “This Town” is nothing compared to “Tramp the Dirt Down” in which Elvis sticks it to Margaret Thatcher while Uileann pipes, Irish fiddle and acoustic guitar bathe his tortured vocals. The song’s title reflects what the narrator hopes to do on the day they bury the British Prime Minister (in case anyone was wondering). Morrissey has been trying to write this song for the past six years.
On some songs, Elvis waxes downright soulful. “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” sounds like something Van Morrison could have recorded when he was working with his horn sections. The Dirty Dozen Brass are prominently featured here and on their jazzy instrumental “Stalin Malone”. And “Baby Plays Around” co-written by Elvis and his wife, is a straight-faced song of love and regret that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on his country album Almost Blue or on an album by Elvis’ hero and the album’s namesake, Spike Jones.
The other notable collaborations on Spike are with Paul McCartney. The first single, “Veronica” is a depressing song with a happy melody crafted by the pair. Elvis’ new label is probably hoping for a success here similar to “Alison” his first single for Columbia, but the subject of the song is an old woman going senile, not a young party girl who got married.
More importantly, Costello and McCartney defray each other’s weaknesses. “Veronica”’s melody is extremely catchy, and the rowdiness of “Pads, Paws and Claws” bodes well for McCartney’s next album.
The songs on Spike don’t really hang together as a cohesive unit, but that’s to be expected after two year and four recording studios. More discouraging is the proliferation of annoying lyrical obscurities and the lack of the vile jokes that once made Elvis’ lyric sheets such an adventure. At least his anti-capital punishment and trash TV statements “Let Him Dangle” and “Satellite” have some humorous images to lighten the message.
Despite the watering down, it’s good to have Elvis back. What other artist could pen a tune called “God’s Comic” and show us the big man upstairs in a red clown nose listening to Andrew Lloyd Weber singing “I’ve been wading through all this unbelievable junk. I should have left the world to the monkeys”?