Elvis Costello (a.k.a. Declan "D.P.A." MacManus) released his last two albums in 1986, a characteristically prodigious outpouring. On the first, King of America, the angry young cryptographer modified his bite and bark, offering a set that explored options befitting a maturing troubadour — musically more acoustic if not altogether mellow, lyrically still lashing but willing to dial the anger down to a simmering brood. The second, Blood & Chocolate, perhaps inspired by the paying public's huge indifference to the first, was a surprising reversal, a return to form — an asskicker. The cumulative effect of the two LPs as to make Declan's Costello a more complicated pretense, an invention of many parts. Those expecting some kind of melding to take place on this year's Spike will be disappointed: This is a mixed bag of moods, the kind of hit-and-miss variety show that will please fans but, I suspect, win no new converts.
The musical range of Spike is suggested by its various recording sites: London, Dublin, New Orleans, Hollywood. Elvis gets poppish with co-writer Paul McCartney ("Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws" — a natural collaboration, as El's been lifting Brit Invasion riffs from the git-go), tries out some Van Morrison licks with Allen Toussaint ("Deep Dark Truthful Mirror"), and gets classically new wave ("...This Town..."). But what prevents Spike from being a forgettably clever potpourri like 1984's Goodbye Cruel World is the adroit use of guests like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, legendary jazz bassist Buell Neidlinger, and the odd Irish folkie — as well as the presence of a few extraordinary songs (makes all the difference). "Tramp the Dirt Down" and "Any King's Shilling" are by far the best political sketches MacManus has devised, achieving just the right mixture of outrage and compassion without shading into righteousness or worse (compare with the album's closer, "Last Boat Leaving," which tips over in a sea of self-pity). Also effective is "Chewing Gum," a weird comic-book urban-funk deal that works on a couple of levels — as harangue, nonsense song, soap opera (for emotional antecedent, hear "White Knuckles" on 1981's Trust) — and is topped by a hang-loose vocal rich with insinuation.
Not everything here is as fresh as those three songs; "Miss Macbeth" and "Satellite," small pleasures and all, could be the work of a Costello mimic. But Spike, unfocused and anticlimactic after his two most purposeful discs, still has enough peaks to sustain the faithful,