When historians hold the deep, dark, truthful mirror tip to Elvis Costello's career, the light will linger just a little bit longer on Spike, his first effort since 1986's Blood and Chocolate.
Marketing considerations aside — who knows, this may turn out to be the album that re-establishes Costello as a viable commercial entity — the reason for the attention will be Spike's undeniable artistic achievement. Whether it's his "best" work, or his most consistent, is for the legion of Costello-philes to ponder in the privacy of homemade shrines to the King of America, a.k.a. Declan MacManus, a.k.a. Napoleon Dynamite.
But Spike (Warner Bros.), released Tuesday, is the first album to fully link Costello's prowess as a songwriter — at this he has very few peers —with the other ingredients generally considered vital to a great pop statement — such as performance, and arrangement, and spirit. Elements that, in combination, have more than once eluded him.
On that day of career reckoning, the small nuances that make Spike such a watermark will be marveled at, dissected, analyzed — and they should be. The album is dizzy with details, sculpted and planned down to the last chime of the glockenspiel. It's preened, not overproduced. The big question — "Does it feel good?" — is covered, and that means there's room for plenty of tiny embellishments. Like the way Costello's one-liners — "When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madame" — so craftily carve up Margaret Thatcher's policies in "Tramp the Dirt Down." Or the way Costello's many guests sound right at home playing together: Who else could have joined New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band with members of the Irish preservationists the Chieftains so musically? And at the same time employ members from two of his previous bands, the Attractions and the Confederates?
While the early records Armed Forces and My Aim Is True happily achieved a balance of body energy and songwriting mind, Costello's later work has been plagued by an over-reliance on the wit of the song to sell it all. He's certainly used his arranger's pen effectively before (Punch the Clock, King of America), but he never trusted his knack fully, as Blood and Chocolate proved. The songs didn't fit neatly together — they were slightly more intense than their surroundings. It seemed Elvis Costello was becoming a songwriter and moving away from his perch as pop stylist.
Spike, an underhanded homage to quirky bandleader Spike Jones that was produced by Costello, Kevin Killen and T Bone Burnett, has changed that. In a subtle shift of attitude rather than a wholesale change, Costello apparently viewed his new songs as theater. He wrote the same kind of epics he's always written, then supported them with textures you'd likely find in a movie score or in folk music.
The 14 songs on Spike (15 on the CD) rely on the sounds of a relentlessly swinging brass section; the jabbing, serious accusations accomplished with strings; the thunderous "I'm home" bellow of the tympani; the dissonant clang of metal pipe, and the haunting presence of a skating-rink organ.