Elvis Costello's excellent new album Spike may be the most stylistically diverse album of the composer's prolific 12-year career. Throughout the record, inventive and intelligent songs sport arrangements so wonderfully crafted and appropriate that one can hardly imagine these tracks in any other form.
The album opens with the shimmering pop of "...This Town..." over Roger McGuinn's immense 12-string electric guitar and Paul McCartney's tuneful bass, Costello sings three vignettes of materialism in the modern world to a soaring melody.
On "Deep Dark Truth Mirror" the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the beautiful, gospel-tinged piano of Allen Toussaint augment the author's impassioned vocal performance.
Costello has been quoted as saying that Spike is his first comedy album. While that might be a gross over-simplification, most of the album's strongest tracks are reminiscent of Randy Newman's blistering sarcasm.
In "God's Comic" a deceased comedian who used to play a drunken priest in his act fears the wrath of you-know-who: "I was scared / He might have never heard God's Comic." But much to his surprise, God is lying on a waterbed, drinking a soda, listening to the soundtrack of Requiem, and musing "I've been wading through all of this unbelievable junk and wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys." By the end of the song, the chorus has cleverly mutated into "You might have never heard, but God's comic."
These wonderfully blasphemous witticisms are perfectly orchestrated with a junky, music-hall arrangement and overdubbed Costello's gleefully harmonizing "dead, dead, dead" during the chorus.
Even more powerful is Costello's venomous anti-Thatcher diatribe, "Tramp the Dirt Down." The Irish-folk arrangement of uileann pipes, bouzouki, fiddle, and acoustic guitar counterpoint an achingly beautiful melody. With the listener sufficiently disarmed, the author moves in for the lyrical kill with lines like: "When England was the whore of the world / Margaret was her Madam."
On "Satellite," vibraphones, marimba, timpani, bass-piano and a number of other disparate instruments create a lush landscape of sound. To this Costello weds a surreal tale of hightech romance. A man falls in love with a woman on television while all over the world people watch him on television for "The thrill of watching somebody watching those forbidden things we never mention."
This is not to say that all of Spike requires microscopic lyrical examination. "Chewing Gum," a humorous narrative of an abusive mail-order marriagc, sounds like a cross between Talking Heads and Tom Waits with funky tuba carrying the bass. The instrumental "Stalin Malone" is dissonant New Orleans jazz with a trumpet solo to rival Maynard Furguson. And Costello's two collaborations with Paul McCartney ("Veronica" and "Pads, Paws, and Claws") are simply serious pop fun.
The album's best song, "Miss Macbeth," combines almost all of these divergent musical ideas into an aural tapestry. It begins with a swirling crescendo of dissonance, then dissolves into a chromatic horn-driven section before finally settling down to a relatively straightforward verse and chorus pattern. No less than 14 musicians and 24 instruments show up in this pop symphony.
Through all of these kaleidoscopic genre mutations the one constant is the amazingly high quality of Elvis Costello s songwriting. But that has been true for every one of his 14 albums. One only hopes that his newly found sense of compositional expertise will continue to flourish after Spike.