Last we saw Elvis Costello on vinyl was 1986. He opened with King of America, the best album released that year. With its bleak but tender take on American myths and musical traditions, it was ambitious artistically and imminently likable. It remains one of the top 10 albums ever.
The remarkably prolific Costello wasted no time with laurels, however, and released Blood and Chocolate later that year. Recorded with the Attractions, (who had been replaced on King with an impressive collection of ethno-pop practitioners), Blood and Chocolate was blunter, edgier, rockier and ultimately less impressive than its predecessor. But it also had an urgency and honesty that was impossible to deny.
Those albums seemed to stand at polar ends of Costello's personality, suggesting an irreconcilable artistic schizophrenia.
But now Costello comes bursting from the cover of Spike, his face painted in harlequin black and white to emphasize the melding of those disparate personalities achieved masterfully on this release.
With 14 songs (15 on the CD), Costello could simply have shuffled the deck and dealt out a tenderly eclectic roots image here, a blunt object there. Instead he has stirred and stirred until they're neatly tangled up in one another on each song.
"...This Town..." starts with a streetwise strut amid aural neon flashes and has lyrics that snap viciously like broken hot wires: "You're nobody 'til everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard." "Let Him Dangle" slinks with a Philip Marlowe cynical sneer and slouched hat. Yet each song is streaked with an earthy tenderness that edges Into the listener's heart and gives it weight.
Conversely, "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" comes off at first as a straight gospelpiano ballad, but is loaded with lethal mirror shards of truth both in the lyrics and Costello's vocals, which repeatedly sidle up to, then back down from violence.
For flights of sheer brilliance, check "Stalin Malone," which appears on the disc as a snaky, threatening, swinging instrumental by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band but comes with bitter, blasting "read-'em-yourself" lyrics printed on the album cover.
The album's apex — and the piece around which it revolves — is "God's Comic," a hands-in-the-pocket shuffling requiem about a second-rate comedian who meets his maker. God, in this vision, reclines on a water bed, "drinking a cola of a mystery brand" (no sell-outs to Pepsi for Costello, eh?) and listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem (although he confesses he prefers "the one about my son").
It's not the comic imagery or the coaxing hook of Costello's voice that gives the cut such power, however. It's the tender, but humorous, sympathy for everyone who's not lived his life to its real potential that turns the trick.
More Jewels? "Tramp the Dirt Down" rocks back and forth with the patience of a lullaby while it one-two punches Margaret Thatcher and political duplicity with its brutal lyrics. "Chewing Gum" charts the tawdry dissolve of an all-too-ordinary love affair in left-of-center jazz-funk riffs.
Strange juxtapositions are the meat of Spike, so it's appropriate that two of Costello's recent collaborations with Paul McCartney also surface. Costello is a worthy successor to Lennon, his black aura and razor's edge giving shape to McCartney's marshmallow center.
"Veronica" picks up in Eleanor Rigby's town 20 years later with a wrenching portrait of an aging woman losing not just her life but even her memories of it in a nursing home. It works on the record, but transcends in the video, where Costello's brooding, bizarre presence underscores the absence of sap and sentiment that make this such a powerful piece.
"Pads, Paws and Claws" is a typical McCartney cute 'n' cuddly conceit given a menacing spin and real life with Costello's slinky voice and shouts. Not only do the two collaborative pieces click on this album, but, miracle of miracles, they've made me anticipate pleasurably the release of McCartney's own album (with more of the joint efforts) later this year.
There are losers among the stunning pieces, I'm sure; but I can't tell you what they are just yet. Costello's favorite trick is to set up thick barriers at the outset, then try to coax the listener around them. "Any King's Shilling," dismissed by me early on as a cursory (and not so deft) traditional turn, has with repeated listening wormed its way into my heart and head and is fast moving its way up my list of best songs on the album.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Spike owes more stylistically to King of America than Blood and Chocolate. No Attractions as an entity appear, although individual players are present. As with King, the mix of styles is eclectic, and the album, as a whole, has an engaging surface. But it also swings harder, has a leaner countenance and comes up tougher at the core.