If Elvis Costello were a baseball player, he'd be playing up there in the Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron leagues. In other words, it's a rarity that he doesn't swat one straight out of the park. His best albums (including Imperial Bedroom, Taking Liberties, and Blood and Chocolate) are among the very best you'll find in rock In roll. And, even when he's sub-par (which he was on Punch the Clock and the odd stab at country Almost Blue) the results are still interesting and passably enjoyable, which is a whole lot better than you can say for Richard Marx or Whitesnake when they really shine!
So you really can't call Spike, Costello's first album since 1986 and debut on Warner Brothers, his best album — the competition is pretty tight on that front as it is. But this album does show Costello in peak musical form, maturing and growing as an artist as he creeps into his late thirties. If it's not the best (and that's splitting hairs anyway), it's certainly very close to the top of the heap.
Spike is reminiscent in many ways to the Beatles' White Album — the mixture of songs and styles is eclectic and may seem somewhat discordant to some ears, but (hopefully) to most it will be seen as signposts of greater versatility and virtuosity.
Speaking of the Fab Four, Paul McCartney collaborated with Costello on the songwriting for two of the LP's cuts, "Pads, Paws, and Claws," and "Veronica." The latter is the album's first single, and is the most commercial music Costello has performed since "The Only Flame in Town" and "I Wanna Be Loved" off Goodbye Cruel World. McCartney's sharp pop instincts undoubtedly played a hand in this breezy cut, although it sounds more distinctively like Costello than McCartney. The same goes for "Pads, Paws, and Claws," which is more characteristic of John Lennon than McCartney in it's acidity. But it's arrangement is not unlike some of the quirkier tunes off McCartney albums like McCartney II or Press to Play.
The cute Beatle turns up again pumping a Rickenbaker bass on "...This Town...", along with another veteran innovator, Roger McGuinn. The former Byrds leader lends his jangly guitar style to the cut, which evokes imagery of rough barrios down in Louisiana.
T Bone Burnett, who produced Costello's King of America is back behind the boards for this set, along with Kevin Killen and Costello himself. One of King of America's overriding trademarks was a folky, acoustic, mellower feel, which returns here, especially on "God's Comic" and "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," although the gentle guitars are sometimes replaced by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band!
More often than not, the stronger of an album's two sides tends to be the first, but the shoe is on the other foot with Spike, as side two bounds off to a jaunty start with the instrumental "Stalin Malone." Oddly though, the lyrics are printed on the outer sleeve. Oh well, leave the vocal version for the next odds and ends album, I suppose.
The final four cuts on Spike are particularly striking. The best track on the album is the heart-rending ballad "Baby Plays Around," (which Costello co-wrote with wife and Pogues member Cait O'Rioardan) and what a moment it is. Costello's voice cracks with emotion in a superb rendering, and the gentle acoustic guitars and bells create a fine background. Bravo.
"Any King's Shilling" and "Last Boat Leaving" strongly close the album. "Shilling" borrows some of the Irish folk sound of the Pogues (0'Rioardan's influence again, perhaps). It clocks in at a little over six minutes, but never seems overly long.
In fact, Spike itself is well over an hour long. It's nice to see an artist using up all of their alloted groove space, rather than spreading it over two discs (for those of us still stuck in the 1980's with vinyl) and tacking an extra buck on the price. It's easy to feel additional grace for the guy on this count alone.
The days when Costello blew out of Britain as a proclaimed "angry young man" among the punk revolution in the late 1970's seem faraway on Spike. And well they should. Costello has grown head-and-shoulders above the days of This Year's Model. I just hope we don't have to wait another two years for his next album.