A drunken, lecherous vicar who liked to spice his Sunday sermons with what he imagined to be humor finally dies, undoubtedly to the relief of his fleeced flock. But even in the beyond, he can't quit jabbering. At least now he has something worth talking about. Only yesterday, he met his Boss, but truth be told, the experience was hardly heavenly. God was lounging on a waterbed, sipping an off-brand cola, reading an airport novel and listening to Andrew Lloyd Weber's Requiem.
"Actually," He said, referring to another of Weber's pseudo-musicals, "I prefer the one about my son. I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk and wondering if I should have left the world to the monkeys."
If the above anecdote was be tween covers, The Church of England might argue it was blasphemy. But it isn't; it's contained in the lyrics to "God's Comic," one of the 15 songs (14 on the vinyl version) on Spike, the first collection of new songs in more than two years from Elvis Costello.
Costello has referred to this collection as his "comedy album" and, indeed, the garish cover pictures him in greasepaint and baggy pants, apparently attempting to illustrate the caption underneath: "Spike the beloved entertainer."
But even a cursory listen to the richly arranged songs within telegraph the record's darkest joke: Spike is not a noun. Unlike 98 percent of all rock and pop songs currently being released, the ones on this record are refreshingly free of compromise and commercialism, sentimentality and sales tactics.
Musically, these songs are all over the place; if a lyric like that in "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" lends itself to gospel, it gets a gospel treatment, with little concern that it could be followed by a jingly pop song ("Veronica") and then a foray into Prince-style funk ("Chewing Gum"). Musicians are used here the way a film director casts a movie; if he's right for the part, he gets the gig, and consequently, more than three dozen players — including players as stylistically different as Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde and Neville Brothers' drummer Willie Green contribute.
Such diversity means that Spike lacks what radio programmers, record company executives and lazy listeners term a "coherent" approach: i.e., every song sounds something like the one before it. Even more unsettling are the lyrics, which are often as biting and angry as they are immaculately crafted. Costello still has a hard time avoiding a smart pun, and he's still a sucker for word play. But clearly, he's taking care that his glibness doesn't overpower the song's point.
In songs like "Let Him Dangle," in which he uses a celebrated English execution of the '50s to question capital punishment, or "Tramp the Dirt Down," in which he expresses the desire to live longer than Margaret Thatcher so he'll have the pleasure of going to her grave to perform the deed of the title, there is little chance his sentiment will be lost on even the most literal listener.
But songs like "Any King's Shilling," a parable concerning the struggle between the Irish Republican Army and the British Army, and the evocative "Satellite," a complex tale in which voyeurism is elevated to a political science, require somewhat more generosity. Like Randy Newman, Costello currently is writing less from his own personal point of view and more from the perspective of the characters in his songs. It is a device rarely employed by pop song writers, who generally lack the courage — or just the inclination — to stand by songs that might be misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Perhaps the best thing about Spike is that Costello doesn't seem to give a damn about that anymore. Yes, he has released the most accessible-sounding song as the record's first single, but once a radio programmer actually listens to the lyrics of "Veronica," co-written with McCartney, he'll realize it's not about some teen dream, but about an elderly and lonely lady lapsing into senility. The song will then go the way of all those other wonderful Costello compositions that, were there any real justice in the world, would have been hit records. Spike has little chance of that. It will have to be content to be a great one.