In a couple of months' time, Elvis Costello will dust down his guitars and set off for what must be his umpteenth tour of America. Costello has done his fair share of US tours since he first played the clubs in the punky days of 1977 and is always finding new ways to keep cliche at bay. Already he is plotting various finales designed to curtail his American audiences' ingenuous but habitual insistence on multiple encores. The two current favourites are a medley of "The Red Flag" and "Faith Of Our Fathers" (both anthems mention dungeons) or the sudden production of a pair of giant shears followed by a smile, a bow and a severing of guitar strings.
Costello’s gift for black comedy is exercised with almost manic vigour on Spike The Beloved Entertainer, his twelfth studio album and the first in more than two-and-a-half years. The cover boasts a tacky tartan backdrop, a pink pincushion frame and a leering insincere Elvis smiling out of the cushion with his face painted in two like some ghastly nightclub comic.
The cover is a suitable send off for the dark vaudeville of Costello’s latest songs whose biting sarcasm and arcane plots evoke the mixture of hilarity and grief that fuelled Cabaret’s portrait of pre-war Berlin. Costello distrusts such comparisons because they suggest the kind of nostalgic borrowings that reduce so much of our contemporary culture to a series of glib shorthand references. Yet while these portraits of loveless manipulation and political despair are undoubtedly Costello’s most detached pieces of storytelling to date, he emerges from Spike with all the cracked dignity of King Lear’s Fool.
Spike The Beloved Entertainer is full of belly laughs that stick in the gut with pride of place going to God’s Comic and Tramp The Dirt Down. In the first, a drunken priest with a lipstick-stained dogcollar dies and goes to heaven, only to encounter God lying on a waterbed “soaking up all our mediocrity, just horrified” . This God is discovered drinking Coke, reading Jeffery Archer and listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Requiem, even through he prefers “the one about my son”.
Neither the priest nor God are anything less than Beetlejuice-like nightmare and Costello’s deranged Vaudevillian arrangement chuckles away like a kettle boiling dry. Tramp The Dirt Down is sadder still. Halfway between a curse and a lament, this plea for Thatcher’s demise is saddened by its own brutality and sets Costello exhausted vocals against a variety of traditional Irish musicians deployed like a chamber orchestra.
Despite the talk of severed guitar strings, Costello clearly relishes his return to the fray. His two and a half years in the wings were spent touring abroad, collaborating with the likes of Paul McCartney and scoring the film The Courier. That scoring experience helps to account for the broad palette of instruments that is employed on Spike, which was recorded in London, New Orleans, Dublin and Hollywood. New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band appear on four of the album’s 15 songs and their chuckling, chattering choruses set the tone for the dark gossip that threads their songs.
“The Courier was the first time I’ve composed lengths of music without worrying about words, “ Costello explains. “I learnt a lot about juxtaposing different kinds of sounds you wouldn’t usually put together in a song. The claustrophobic band setting of records like Blood & Chocolate is suited to personal stories but when you’re dealing with characters as on Spike, you can let your imagination run riot like with film music.”
Many of Costello’s earlier records struggled between the angry young man of his first outpourings and the emerging craftsman of his maturity. Spike is Costello as storyteller yet while songs like Let Him Dangle have the simple resonance of broadsides, they also show a man who is at one with his emotions.
“In the past, when I tried to tell stories, not only did I not tell them very well but often the point wasn’t made at the end of them.” he says. “There was too much of me present.”
Despite his new-found detachment, Spike’s songs depend on Costello’s own varied delivery. Only his wife Cait’s Baby Plays Around has the kind of popular resonance to live without Costello’s inimitable vocal styling. “That’s a very pure song which is probably why it’ll last longer than any of my songs. She’ll be rich long after I’m a pauper.
“The songs I write always have one line in them that puts a questions mark over their heads. I wrote a song called Indoor Fireworks some time ago. It’s a very simple country-based song with a fairly universal story. But it has a line in it which sounds like it belongs in a Cole Porter song - ‘You were the spice of life/The gin in my Vermouth’. I played it to the country singer Ricky Skaggs, halfway thinking he might pick it up for one of his records. I got to that line and Ricky threw back his head and went “What’s this? People in country songs don’t mention Martinis. Ricky doesn’t even drink.
“It’s not a question of being too clever for your own good; perhaps I have too high expectations of what you can get away with in a limited genre. I can’t write Cole Porter songs but then again, he can’t write mine.”
While Costello’s covers have always displayed his love of the seamless simplicity of popular songs, his own work retains a prickly modernity that he will defend to the hilt. His songs replace romance with disappointment and pleasure with power. “Pop songs mention romance and attraction far more than they really care about it,” he snorts.
“Why does love have to be everything all the time to everybody in songs? Why shouldn’t someone drink a drink or eat a meal in a song. I don’t think I’m abnormal. I think that those songs that portray things in isolation are abnormal. Most love songs never mention the moment after. Pleasure just isn’t written about very accurately. I’m not saying there’s only manipulation but perhaps romance and the rest are just too obvious. You know how it works - everybody does. The only people who don’t are young enough to imagine that Kylie and Jason don’t really do it and that there’s still a Santa Claus.”
Costello prefers scenarios to romance and Spike is full of characters and situations observed with waspish invention. He cheerfully admits to playing God with his characters whilst insisting that God doesn’t preach. Perhaps this explains why Costello is both attracted and repelled by showbiz, why he delights in insincerity and yet appears to long for a moment of resolution. “Spike obviously has an element of ‘let’s drive a nail through the heart of showbusiness’ but I know I’m still part of it. The Beloved Entertainer specialises in false sentiments; he goes for the knee-jerk every time, I try to avoid that but we’re all whores in the end, there’s no great longlasting purity. “
Costello’s current set includes a cover of Bon Jovi’s Bad Medicine. He cites it as a classic pop song and argues that he might easily have written it. But he will never write a song of such commercial simplicity, just as he will never play the same set every night. “It’s a misapprehension to think I’m frustrated because I don’t sell millions of records, I think the other people must be frustrated, the ones who do the same things over and over again.
“I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be in Pink Floyd and know that you have to do this number now because this is when the pig comes over and explodes. There’s that kind of music and then there’s this; it’s just different. Like the 48 flavours of Dayville’s Ice Cream. I don’t mind that as long as I don’t get limited to vanilla. Life’s just tutti frutti after all…”