Pay the price of attention and enter Elvis Costello's Magic Theater, a dazzling display of musical and political style united by a simultaneously bitter and compassionate point of view.
Spike is not only the first great recording of 1989, it's Costello's best since Imperial Bedroom, the florid, symphonic extravaganza he unleashed to characteristic critical acclaim (and characteristically lukewarm commercial reception) in 1982.
Spike treads many of the paths Costello blazed on King Of America, the ambitious rockabilly-based panorama of American music that was one of two discs he released in 1986 (the other was the brash, grungy Blood & Chocolate, featuring Costello alter ego Napoleon Dynamite and his regular backinggroup, the Attractions).
On Spike, Costello has again broadened his horizons. Two tunes were written with fellow Liverpudlian Paul McCartney (Costello's real name is Declan MacManus, but he's an Irishman three generations removed to England), a few feature the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and most boast Tom Waits' brilliant guitarist Marc Ribot. Almost all are sparked by narrative at least as much as by metaphor.
There's a pastoral feeling to several tunes, especially the more overtly political ones, such as "Tramp The Dirt Down" (a sad, angry blast at Margaret Thatcher and at a society that values imagery over care) and the almost unbearably wistful "Last Boat Leaving," which, as "Shipbuilding" did on 1983's Punch The Clock, gives Spike a nostalgic, despairing note.
For the most part, Costello shelves the dazzling wordplay that marked some of his best albums (especially This Year's Model and Armed Forces) for straightforward storytelling. If, at times, the story is complex — "Chewing Gum," one of several cuts about dashed expectations and deceit, is a jagged, obscure jump song, "Coal-Train Robberies" is a Third World news flash of constantly shifting viewpoint — listen again. (Only the CD and cassette contain the nervy "Coal-Train Robberies": sandwiched between the lovely Irish-uprising memoir "Any King's Shilling" and "Last Boat Leaving," songs of similar tempo and attitude, it gives those formats more vitality than the vinyl version.)
At first, Spike seems schizophrenic, like the image of comedy and tragedy, "the beloved entertainer," on the cover. (Costello has said one inspiration of his first Warner Brothers recording — after more than 10 years on Columbia — was Spike Jones.) But the key to Spike is its diversity, which spans the rich pop of "Veronica" (a collaboration with McCartney and, with odd resonance, kind of an update of "Eleanor Rigby"), the cosmic rockabilly of "Pads, Paws And Claws" (the other McCartney collaboration), the bluesy "God's Comic" and the teary, naked "Baby Plays Around."
The songs build upon one another, each successive tune giving the preceding depth and drama. "...This Town..." launches Spike with a bitter attack at entrepreneurs, its dominant images those of the piano man as leper, of the Babbitt whose poverty is his stigma, of the "Fish-Finger King" who lives on "Self-Made Man Row." Costello again says that the artist is a prophet without honor — and that that is the artist's necessary position. "...This Town..." packs the punch of "Pump It Up," but it's wise without being wisecracking.
"Let Him Dangle" recounts a bizarre British love triangle that ended in murder, its edgy, jangly music supportng a tune with the ingenuousness of a child's rhyme and an adult, anti-capital punishment focus.
For the rich, funny "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," Costello and his wife, former Pogue Cait O'Riordan, traveled to New Orleans to enlist the Dirty Dozen Brass band and legendary pianist Allen Toussaint. Toussaint applies precise, churchy filigree to this devotional love song about the consequences of deceit.
God is not amused on "God's Comic," Costello's sour, bluesy sketch of a drunken priest (the priest turns up in "civilian" guise on the barbed "Pads, Paws And Claws," as a besotted fool whose woman is too good for him).
There isn't a single failure here though "Coal-Train Robberies" is lyrically confusing. Otherwise, the words are rarely opaque, even when the structure of a tune is complex. Take "Miss Macbeth," an acid portrayal of an old, witchy woman who might even be more evil than she looks. Driven by Attraction drummer Pete Thomas, it starts with an electronic buzz evoking ancient psychedelic groups like the Electric Prunes, then melds Irish and Crescent City strains in standard Costello synthesis. Bouzoukis, glockenspiel, organ and the keening fiddle of Waterboy Steve Wickham frame some of Costello's toughest lyrics: "Even a scapegoat must have someone to hate," he says.
"Miss Macbeth," the creamy, ambiguous "Satellite" and the forked "Stalin Malone" are the keys to Spike. "Miss Macbeth" evokes Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in its psychedelic vaudeville and its evocation of childhood haunts and imagery, while "Satellite" again discloses Costello's fascination with imagery and electronics. (Note how "Miss Macbeth" vamps on Costello's real name, Declan MacManus; also note another resonance: "...This Town..." is the first song to unite three Macs: MacManus, Roger McGuinn and McCartney — and all on Rickenbackers, no less.)
Nearly 11 years ago, Costello blasted the airwaves in more ways than one with "Radio Radio." On "Satellite," he suggests a world far beyond radio, one in which interactive television allows the voyeur to become witness to himself/herself, where looking at an object of desire is like looking in the mirror, where the line between yearning and pornography is perilously thin. The song has a '50s pop texture, a glowing arrangement sparked by the keyboards of Heartbreaker Benmont Tench and producer-about-town Mitchell Froom and the emotive voice of Pretender Chrissie Hynde. And over it, Costello delicately croons of a world where electronics are universal, connecting people while simultaneously allowing them to retain their private fantasies. It's a disturbing, ambiguous torch song fueled by current rather than flame.
"Stalin Malone" is an instrumental on the disc, (performed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band), but Costello has provided lyrics on the insert. Packed with horns and percussion, it's swinging and jovial, and might have been written by Hollywood chartmaker Shorty Rogers in the late '50s. The phantasmagoric lyrics suggest an all-knowing Big Brother whose time is about to come. By splitting music and lyrics, Costello gives this song a dimension it wouldn't have had otherwise.
As usual, Spike isn't an album of hits, though Warner Brothers easily could release "Veronica," "Chewing Gum" or "Any King's Shilling" and see whether one might stick to the airwaves. Instead, Spike is a unified work about exploration, about looking at a world grown disturbing and alienating.
With Spike, Costello has reclaimed his eminence as rock's best reporter, one of the premier documentarians of a universe that goads, saddens and amuses him. His highly catholic art allows us to share in his feelings, learn from them and, yes, dance to them.