Horror and humour have always been compellingly juxtaposed in Costello's work. This time around, the resulting tension is clear from a glance at the sleeve of Spike. It depicts Costello's head mounted on a plaque like a hunter's trophy, his face grinning insanely through grotesque clown's make-up. Below, is a small brass plate that reads "THE BELOVED ENTERTAINER." Initially shocking, the image now makes me smile.
More importantly, though, it illustrates the dilemma facing Costello following the relative commercial failure of Blood And Chocolate — a failure that was admittedly exacerbated by the wilful release of singles that were scarcely likely to win daytime radio airplay. So — what is a poor genius to do when fans stay loyal, but the world won't listen?
Well, for a start, he can call in famous friends. The kind of acquaintances who might raise his profile without making him easy prey for gutting and stuffing by the forces of business. So, Spike features two collaborations with Paul McCartney, who also plays bass on two tracks. Elsewhere, there are cameo appearances from Chrissie Hynde, Allen Toussaint, Roger McGuinn and Christy Moore. The Attractions would seem to be no more, though Pete Thomas makes a couple of contributions on drums. Both of the songs co-written with McCartney are remarkably effective. "Veronica," the forthcoming single, and "Pads, Paws And Claws" can be seen as further education versions of Squeeze's "Labelled With Love" and The Cure's "The Love Cats," respectively. But let's start at the beginning. "...This Town..." (note those dotty pauses) is a wondering, disgusted look at sordid small-time manoeuverings, set to a melody whose power owes nothing to brute force or noise. Eerie keyboard tones and ingeniously arranged and treated vocals underpin the interesting contention that "you're nobody 'till everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard." Ears must be burning all over London.
"Let Him Dangle" is an almost Dylan-esque narrative ballad about the infamous Craig/Bentley murder case of the Fifties. An abortive robbery ended in violence when Craig and Bentley were cornered by police on a warehouse roof. Craig, who was armed, was told to surrender his gun, whereupon Bentley was heard to utter the ambiguous instruction, "Let him have it, Chris." Craig then shot one of the policemen. The pair were subsequently convicted of murder. Craig was too young to hang. But Bentley, although he had been unarmed at the time of the arrest, went to the gallows. He was 19.
A low, resonant piano makes it musically akin to a more swinging version of "Pills And Soap." Which is a gruesome irony, considering the subject. It's a frightening story, vividly told. Its contemporary relevance becomes clear when you remember that dozens of Tory MPs regularly make themselves more popular with their constituency bigots by regularly voting for the return of capital punishment.
"Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," which follows, is inevitably less emotive. The lyric is frustratingly obscure, and the track is probably most notable for the debut here of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the New Orleans ensemble who are employed on three of the album's tracks. Elvis is in soulboy mode, and the polished brass suits his impassioned delivery perfectly. But only he knows what the description in the third verse of a butterfly's exotic diet is meant to convey to anyone.
"Veronica" brings the album back into focus. The first of the songs co-written with McCartney, it's a gorgeous, gambolling thing. Subtly constructed, but instantly infectious, it should get Costello back in the singles chart. Production credits on Spike, incidentally, are shared by EC, Kevin Killen and T-Bone Burnett, and they deserve lots of credit for "Veronica." It features sweet, light touches of trumpet, strings and keyboards, and once again, Costello's harmonies are beautifully layered. Yet the song still sounds lean and urgent.
"I wish you'd known me when I was alive," is a difficult opening to follow, but Costello manages it on "God's Comic." It's a quiet, whispering piece that highlights Costello's mordant sense of humour, while suggesting that the Almighty may have an even darker one. In the guise of a "comical priest," EC sees the Lord reclining on a waterbed, listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem." "I prefer the one about my son," confides the deity, as a banjo and xylophone twang and twinkle in the background.
"Chewing Gum" is yet another sad short story — this album is full of them. This one's about an unhappy, commercially-arranged marriage, where sex is the couple's only real communication. It's particularly remarkable for the ingenious way the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is added to nothing more than drums and guitar to create a brisk dance track, sousaphone taking the place of more conventional bass instruments.
I have a strange feeling that "Tramp The Dirt Down," the side's closer, may grow on me. For the moment, Costello's eloquent anti-Thatcher rant is weighed down by an excessively dirge-like, repetitive melody. "When England was the whore of the world / Margaret was her madam," Costello declares, anticipating the day when he can tread down the earth on the monster's grave, just to make certain she stays down. The track plods like a funeral procession (which may have been the idea), but the lyric is wonderful. It makes me want to join Elvis in his Grantham graveyard stomp right now.
"Stalin Malone," which opens side two, is an enigma. An excellent lyric under the same title appears on the outer sleeve, but this is a punchy, jazzy instrumental, performed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Curious. Normal service, however, is resumed, with "Satellite," a remarkably timely release in the week that Murdoch unveils his latest scheme for making money out of ignorance. Costello and a solemn Chrissie Hynde weave through a melodic maze, singing about the homogenisation of dreams induced by mass communication, millions sharing the same soap opera thrills and imitation sorrows.
"Pads, Paws And Claws," another story of an unhappy marriage, is followed by "Baby Plays Around," Costello's latest attempt to write the ultimate torch song. Its predecessors include "Almost Blue" and "Poisoned Rose," but this beats both. It's a moment of real beauty, created out of unworthy emotions. Along with "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," it's one of only two love songs on Spike that are sung in the first person, which makes Spike perhaps Costello's most detached and objective album. There is certainly a coolness about this record that contrasts sharply with the emotional fireworks of his two 1986 LPs.
"Miss Macbeth," meanwhile, might be Costello's first Goth song. I mean, the way it starts it could be The Banshees, with eerie sound effects leading into a sinister story about a lonely schoolteacher who may be dabbling in black magic. It gives the production team an opportunity to indulge themselves with its various vocal treatments and sudden, dramatic switches of tone and texture, but it's less an emotionally gripping drama than an impressive technical achievement.
The final pair of songs on Spike are in the acoustic, folkish vein that Costello last mined on King Of America. "Any King's Shilling" features a host of star names from Irish folk circles, and handles the most difficult of subject matters — Northern Ireland, and the British presence there - with a sensitivity that can only be admired. It's a positive song eventually, about friendship overcoming bigotry, as an Irishman tries to persuade a British squaddie to kick the soldiering habit. We don't know whether he succeeds, but there is goodwill here, an intimation of reconciliation.
Finally, there's the simple folk lament of "Last Boat Leaving," a quiet understated, yet desperately sad song, about a father forced to leave home, presumably to find work Bitterness shows through at the very end, but there's a kind of triumph there, too: "You've taken the place where I once belonged / Now what more can you take?" As another master songwriter once put it: when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.
Certainly, Spike proves that Costello is still the finest wordsmith we have, his only serious challenger being Morrissey. Musically, he's perhaps too versatile here, to the point where Spike lacks the clear identity of its most recent predecessors. The third-person detachment that characterises much of the LP means that this album takes longer to grip than the warm, generous King Of America, or the fiery, dramatic Blood And Chocolate. But I've lived with it only a day, arid I'm discovering new things with each successive listen. It's thoughtful, furious, eloquent, witty and angry.
It's Elvis Costello.