East Coast Rocker, March 15, 1989

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East Coast Rocker

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Tales of a sleeping pit bull

Elvis Costello / Spike

John A. Reynolds

I don't know why people laugh and point when I suggest that there are a lot of similarities between Prince and Elvis Costello. I really don't think it's an unfathomable proposition.

Play "Chewing Gum" from Spike, for example, and see if that Prince influence doesn't smack you in the head. It's no secret that Elvis admires the majestic Purple One — I've even seen him cover "Pop Life" and "Sign 'O' The Times" in concert.

The abstract similarities between them, however, are the ones that really matter. Both are visionaries, both are hungry, both have sufficiently left most of their contemporaries in the dust, and both are doing their damnedest to be among the first who will decide what music in the '90s is going-to sound like.

The implications of this last statement are rather frightening, particularly in light of albums like Sign 'O' the Times and Spike. If we entrust the next decade to people who think like Prince and Costello, either the established guidelines about how to write, record, listen to, and judge rock music will have to be drastically changed, or rock 'n' roll will die altogether.

If this sounds heavy-handed, good. Rock 'n' roll fans should be totally intimidated by Spike because the album is a threat to their aesthetic sensibilities. Spike may seem quiet, subtle, and well-mannered, but so does a sleeping pit bull. "Stay, Spike, Nice doggie!" That's right, beg for mercy, because this Spike is cleverly disguised, mean, junkyard pit bull, ready to rip you George Thorogood t-shirt to shreds and sink its fangs into your rock 'n' roll heart.

The irony is that, while this album's potential effect on modern music is staggering, Spike is not Elvis' best album. While it's as important as This Year's Model and My Aim Is True, it's not half as accessible as those two pioneering albums (then again, it's probably not supposed to be), and the material on Spike is not as consistently thrilling. Sonically, and from a composer's point of view, Spike most closely resembles the murky, plodding Imperial Bedroom with one crucial difference: Spike is an ambitious project which works, and Bedroom was an over ambitious project which didn't.

Also, Spike best illustrates why Costello has aged more gracefully and with more certainty than other songwriters who emerged from the late '70s post-punk era. David Byrne and Joe Jackson, to cite two comparable contemporaries, have covered a lot of ground dabbling in various musical genres, but this dabbling may also be perceived as contrived attempts at being "experimental." Jackson, for example, put out punk records and jazz records and classical records — not bad records, mind you — which were probably intended to display his versatility, but which smelled vaguely of artistic insecurity.

Costello hasn't always been immune to the "experimental" trend, either. Almost Blue was the "Elvis tries country" album, Punch The Clock was "Elvis tries R&B," and Imperial Bedroom was "Elvis tries everything." Those past experiments now seem like the results of temporary schizophrenia. When an artist plays around with different styles, that doesn't necessarily mean that the artist in question is evolving, despite what he or she would like us to believe. But Spike doesn't play around. This is the "Elvis tries to find out what Elvis is all about" album.

All the styles of music that Elvis has played around with in the past make cameo appearances here, but not singly. The country, the punk, the Scottish folk music (!), etc. blend into little vignettes that defy categorization. Thankfully, the unmistakable Costello trademarks — impeccable, affecting melodies; clever, occasionally impenetrable lyrics; sound collaging (I think he picked that one up from Prince); unique arrangements — for the most part, remain intact.

Spotty reminders of the past keep Spike from being alienated from the rest of the Costello catalog. "Let Him Dangle," Spike's most memorable track, conjures "Watching The Detectives" with its vocal phrasing and "Pills And Soap" with its sullen mood. Upbeat tracks like "Veronica" (co-written by Paul McCartney, but you'd never know it if he wasn't credited) and the quirky "Coal-Train Robberies" recall This Year's Model's youthful energy, while "...This Town..." might have fit comfortably on Armed Forces.

But Spike stands alone as the culmination of all past trials and errors; all of Elvis' observations and hypotheses are over and Spike is the scientific conclusion. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," "God's Comic" and "Tramp The Dirt Down" are intrinsically beautiful and subtle pieces, but it's the treatment of them which represents Costello's transformation from a merely extraordinary songwriter to a premier 20th Century popular music composer. Electronics, horns, bouzoukis and glockenspiels replace or accompany the standard bass-drums-guitar-piano not for the sake of gimmickry, but because Costello has mastered the art of honing and coloring his music, adding the right sounds in the right amount for maximum effect.

The fact that the sound on Spike is perfect makes up for the fact that the material isn't. "Any King's Shilling," for example, is six minutes of tedium, and I'm still mulling over the mutant jazz instrumental, "Stalin Malone." But it's the way that this album sounds, and the statement that that sound makes about music in general, that makes Spike subversive and a force to be reckoned with. Records like this (and Prince's next one — cross your fingers) dare to uproot all that's sacred and drag modern music kicking and screaming into the '90s. Rock 'n' roll needs this Spike driven into its withering carcass, either to kill it or revive it.

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East Coast Rocker, No. 139, March 15, 1989


John A. Reynolds reviews Spike.


Paul Iorio profiles Elvis Costello.

Images

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Cover and page scan.


Like a crown


Paul Iorio

1989-03-15 East Coast Rocker page 25.jpg

Before it gets buried in what follows, Spike, Elvis Costello's fifteenth album, is a major, meaty record, perhaps his best one, and almost certainly bound to be regarded as one of the top five of 1989. It shimmers and sparkles and moves and tugs at the heart and mind at every stop, and it has the eclectic density of a greatest hits package.

Whether you listen to it on LP, with its 14 tracks, or on cassette and CD, with all 15, the result is the same: Spike blows away almost everything he's done in the '80s, fulfilling every promise made by Imperial Bedroom, This Year's Model and My Aim Is True.

The playing is exquisite, the songwriting dazzling, and the sequencing magical — though those with CD players might want to try this from-a-whisper-to-a-scream sequence: 11, 7, 13, 15, 9, 5, 3, 2, 8, 12, 6, 10, 14, 1, 4 (or backwards for a scream-to-a-whisper effect).

The big debate of the spring season is already shaping up: Is Spike Costello' s best album? Some make convincing claims for 1982's Imperial Bedroom, others stay loyal to his first three albums — 1977's My Aim Is True, 1978's This Year's Model and Armed Forces — and a few even hold out for 1980's Get Happy!! and 1981's Trust.

If Imperial Bedroom is Costello's Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, then Spike is his Abbey Road. Where the former is fussy, the latter is direct; where the former is preoccupied with production tricks and embellishments, the latter is primarily song — centered. Both are brilliant, but Spike has all the content and inspiration and half the pretension of Imperial Bedroom.

To be sure, Imperial Bedroom's rapid-fire barrage of great tracks — from "Human Hands" and "You Little Fool" to "And In Every Home" and "Pidgin English" — proved that Costello's songs are at least as great as any written in the rock era. But repeated listening shows that the album doesn't really swing, and that its production values sometimes threaten to overwhelm the songs.

This is made painfully clear by listening to bootleg recordings of Imperial Bedroom songs performed during Costello's '82, '83 and '86 tours. "Shabby Doll" is infinitely more appealing in its funked-up concert arrangement; "And In Every Home" has a groove and flow obscured by its album version; the live "Pidgin English" is slimmed down enough so that it actually works as a medley with "Hand In Hand"; "Kid About It" sounds unforced live where Costello doesn't artificially change octaves for the chorus; and "You Little Fool" almost works better as a folk song. All of this is a long way to say that Imperial Bedroom's songs are beautifully written but often poorly arranged.

This can not be said about the songs on Costello's first three albums, which have never been effectively re-arranged, because their versions are definitive. One need only recall the flat, piano version of "Accidents Will Happen" on the Live At Hollywood High single or the silly Punch The Clock-tour rendition of "Watching The Detectives" to understand that the early songs' arrangements are necessary and therefore fixed.

This is truly surprising when one considers that Costello's first album, 1977's My Aim Is True, wasn't even recorded with the Attractions. One would think that My Aim Is True is theoretically the album least carved in stone, since it was recorded with a group of rather incompatible players named Clover (Huey Lewis' backing band). Still the Attractions have never significantly bettered the Clover versions of those songs.

Costello's first album with the Attractions, 1978's This Year's Model, was long considered by critics and fans as his best work until Imperial Bedroom muddied the issue. Today, it still stands as a scathing, razor-sharp attack, a Between The Buttons-like capsulization of Costello's early "guilt and vengeance" ethos, an album whose unusual intensity allowed critics to overlook its obvious, flawed brevity.

If there was ever a point at which Costello seemed likely to take it all the way and enter the ranks of super-stardom, it was in 1979, following the release of Armed Forces. That album sounded big and great and glossy, and it turned him into a bonafide pop star in Britain and a major cult-phenom in America, where he rode the cresting new wave like an expert surfer. But all the fame and publicity became overwhelming for a guy who had been a computer programmer at a bank just a few years earlier. The Attractions broke up briefly and then reformed, and Costello wasn't heard from on vinyl for more than a year, until the release of 1980's Get Happy!!

Get Happy!!, for all the unmitigated brilliance of its second side, was marred by what one critic has called "cramped programming" cramming 20 songs, many of them sketchy, onto one 45 minute disc. Fans heard Get Happy!! as an abandonment of the Costello sound as they had come to know it on his first three albums — and indeed, Costello has only returned to that sound once, in 1986 for the masterful Blood and Chocolate throwback.

1981's Trust, an album that has several great tunes but no cohesion, is overrated but nonetheless spectacular. "Clubland" is unfocused (except in concert where the song's stern piano figure unifies it); "New Lace Sleeves," written when Costello was a teenager, is tentative, as is "Big Sister's Clothes"; and "Shot With His Own Gun," which resembles the Hollywood High version of "Accidents Will Happen," might have benefited from a full-band arrangement.

But Costello is one of the few artists who has never made a completely lousy album; the only one that comes close, and it does come close, is Goodbye Cruel World, which he now admits was a mistake. Even his country experiment, Almost Blue, has an enduring appeal, and his collections of B-sides and outtakes Taking Liberties and Out of Our Idiot — feature some of his best work, albeit alongside some of his worst.

If Costello's first phase is summed up by Armed Forces, and his second by Imperial Bedroom, then his third phase — and perhaps his entire career is crowned by Spike.


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