Some people have been waiting a long time to ambush D.P.A. MacManus, a.k.a. Elvis Costello, and Spike may give them the opportunity. His long-awaited new album (by my count his 13th disc of original songs, excluding the Nashville cover collection Almost Blue) is ambitious, cerebral, somber, introverted and usually several miles from what you'd call rock 'n' roll. It's loaded with cameo appearance by famous people but a lot of their contributions are barely noticeable (e.g., if you can find Roger McGuinn's 12-string inside the thick mix of "...This Town..." you must have 48-track ears) Except for a couple of Pete Thomas drum parts, Costello's longtime backup group The Attractions don't play on it; Nick Lowe, his longtime producer and cohort (Lowe's the one who nicknamed Elvis "the Cole Porter of the '80s" ), has nothing to do with it. Judging by the customary criteria of the marketplace, this quirky, arresting record ought to make Costello about as popular as an armed Shi'ite in the lobby of Viking-Penguin Books.
Even before you've opened it, Spike has gone pretty far toward putting you off: it has the ugliest, spookiest jacket photo since Peter Gabriel melted his face across the trippy-looking cover of his third album. Mounted bodiless on a satin-covered plaque resembling the Warner Bros, logo, above a nameplate reading "The Beloved Entertainer," Costello's harlequin-painted mug grins just wide enough to show he's survived some appallingly incompetent dental work; the album's title, in garish mismatched Day Glo green, appears to be driving its "spike" straight into his head. This guy's struck some bizarre poses in the past but this decapitated image (a combination of Bugs Bunny, John the Baptist, Pierrot and Mephistopheles?) suggests he's finally gone all the way around the bend. But as nutty as he seems to want to appear, Costello's proved once again that he can outwrite, outsing and out-think anybody with the chutzpah to call himself his competition. Spike takes a while to get used to — one of the most loyal Costello fans I know insists she never likes any of his records the first time she hears them — but it's a huge, sprawling masterpiece, well worth the effort it demands of a listener.
It's both true and false that Costello's a "beloved entertainer," of course. In spite of (or because of) his personal gnarliness, there's a solid core of critics and close listeners willing to give his craft the attention and patience it demands but the bulk of the pop audience hasn't stayed with him as he's moved further toward stylistic cross-breeding and meditative lyrics. In strictly musical terms, his career has followed a trajectory remarkably similar to that of the Beatles and their contemporaries, branching out from a familiar base of R&B-based pop into forms ranging from ragtime to psychedelia. As the fullest flowering of his eclectic talents to date, Spike bears comparison with The Village Green Preservation Society, The Who Sell Out, Abbey Road and even Sgt. Pepper along with Costello's own albums Trust and Imperial Bedroom.
Yes, it's that impressive. It mixes equal parts of biting rock, bouncy music-hall "trad jazz," keening Irish pipes and strings, bawdy New Orleans horns (courtesy of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band) and arty oddball percussion, all integrated with astonishing smoothness and balance. But like everything else Costello has done, Spike lacks — or resists — the qualities of innocence and cuteness that are all too important in determining pop success. Nobody else working today is in his league: among his other feats, he collaborates with Paul McCartney and rescues that Beatle from the soggy sentimentality that's marked his career
for well over a decade, and for that alone he ought to be knighted. In a sane world this album would be a triple-platinum sure thing. As for this world... well, I'll be amazed if it isn't on the cutout racks within a year.
Backed by scores of impressive studio honchos and encouraged in his experiments by co-producer T Bone Burnett, Costello spins out 14 complicated mini-operas fathoming the depths of desperation, degradation, perversion, perversity — and humanity. In the space of about four lines he can create a character or a situation you won't forget; in a three-minute song he can give that character more psychological depth than most contemporary novelists do in 300 pages.
Take the opener, "...This Town..." Across three verses he constructs three quick vignettes of people discovering fortune and ill fame: a clever, nasty topical songwriter "a-playing the piano like he was pawing a dirty book"; a businessman resembling a cross between a paranoid Nixon ("He's so proud of the 'kick me hard' sign that they hung on his back at birth") and Graham Greene's sinister, manipulative Dr. Fischer ("He said 'I appreciate beauty, if I have one then it's my fault / Beauty is on my pillow, beauty is there in my vault'"); and a whorish yuppie trading her favors for corporation stock ("A little amused by the belief in her power / You must remember this, it was the fetish of the hour"). Without making any overt connections between these characters, the song simply lets them stand as emblems of the grubby compromise-ridden public sphere where "you're nobody 'til everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard." It's not exactly free-associative songwriting but it's risky and impressionistic — the sort of writing that sets apart the Dylans, Lennons, Reeds and Costellos from ordinary lyricists who spell out their meanings as if they were teaching 5th graders.
Many of Costello's characters deserve and receive barrages of bitter sarcasm; the guy who used to declare frankly that all his lyrics dealt with "guilt and revenge" isn't shy about skewering people, from the fat kinky German who buys and abuses a mail-order Asian bride ("Chewing Gum") to a hideous hypocritical Prime Minister staring a child to death with a photo-opportunity kiss (the bitterly sane anti-Thatcher dirge "Tramp the Dirt Down").
But he's no longer so concerned with biting hands and being an enfant terrible; against its general backdrop of emotional bleakness and public perfidy, the record has just as many moments of sympathy and expansiveness. The single "Veronica," one of two songs co-written with Paul McCartney, takes a highly improbable subject for a rock song — an aged woman who sits silently in an institution — and develops it into an admiring tribute to her life and memories ("she used to have a carefree mind of her own, with a devilish look in her eye"; she's apparently modeled after Elvis' grandmother).
Although he's been labeled a misogynist throughout his career, he shows a profound respect for women caught in the double-binds of sexual politics: he implores the mail-order bride to "take that chewing gum out of your ears" and change her dreadful situation; in another MacManus/ McCartney composition, a feline wife "Pads, Paws and Claws" her way through marital warfare and comes out looking impressive; in "Satellite," he looks inside the mind of a porn-video starlet and connects her sadness to the loneliness of her randy observer a thousand miles away ("All over the world at the very same time people sharing the same sorrow / As the satellite looks down her darkest hour is somebody's bright tomorrow").
Even the ill-tempered, witchlike "Miss Macbeth," another spooker of children, is pictured as a kind of victim ("as they tormented her she rose to the bait / Even a scapegoat must have someone to hate"). Costello's worldview hasn't gotten any prettier since his old guilt & revenge days but he's become a wry and mature observer as well as a chronicler of social malaises.
I'm probably making him sound like someone with a basically literary/cinematic sensibility at odds with most of the world, and everyone knows that your typical literary mind blends with the realm of popular music about as well as Havoline mixes with lemonade. But it's Costello's rare gift to be as sophisticated in his melodies, arrangements and performances as he is in the arcane art of developing and sustaining his verbal perspectives. The range of rhythms and textures on this album is huge, showing Costello to be equally at home with gentle acoustic ballads ("Tramp the Dirt Down," "Last Boat Leaving" and "Any King's Shilling," which features the gorgeous, plaintive Irish fiddles of Frankie Gavin and Steve Wickham) and with rowdy, funky swing ("Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," driven by Allen Toussaint's sparkling piano, and the electro-bebop stops, starts and squeaks of "Chewing Gum" ). From his deployment of bass instruments (not just bass guitars, both lucid Rickenbackers and plunky Hofners, but also tubas, uprights and Hammond pedals) to his contrapuntal horn arrangements (especially on the all-instrumental "Stalin Malone," the violent lyrics to which appear on the cover but presumably are being saved for later), Costello's work reflects a precise sense of detail and an imagination that can move swiftly from the tender to the jarring. The structures and orchestrations are unique, often to the point of eccentricity, but the dreaded label "art rock" won't stick.
Costello will probably never shake his reputation as a personality too quirky for most tastes; by consciously embracing so many anti-commercial (or at least inaccessible) ideas, he appears to be settling comfortably into a sector where arena tours and mass appeal are irrelevant — over there away from the center, where fellow spirits like Tom Waits and Randy Newman dwell. I'd call this a good idea: in a lot of way he's too talented to waste his time as a pop star. He can come up with a heartbreaking pop melody when he wants to, which is pretty often; "Veronica" ought to be a substantial single, and "Satellite," with Chrissie Hynde joining on the chorus, should be another. But the odder, quieter, more personal songs (like the poignant "Last Boat Leaving," adapted from his score for the upcoming Irish film The Courier, or "God's Comic," in which he dies and learns the Deity is a bemused trash-culture junkie about to write off the human race as hopeless) indicate abilities and affinities that can't be contained within the boundaries of rock as we know it.
In interviews Costello has always stressed his profound debts to his father, bandleader Ross MacManus, to whom the jazz element on Spike seems an implicit tribute. He's also acutely aware of the shoddy ways the elder MacManus has often been treated by the music industry and this refusal to deliver the product that's expected of him can be seen as a form of proud, firm revenge: a healthier revenge, in the long run, than the delightfully low-minded resentfulness that marked his late-70s
albums. That charismatic early self — the clever nerd in a vicious mood — was a brilliant stroke, a cocked snook at the preposterous world of rock 'n' roll narcissism, a declaration of independence for smart unglamorous people everywhere. But in the light of his later work, that original Elvis looks like just another of D.P.A. MacManus' carefully written characters. MacManus himself, once he's through shocking you by putting his head on a plate, is a musician first and a personality second. I'd be willing to bet that in 100 years he'll be remembered mainly for work like Spike. That he'll be remembered in 100 years, for whatever reasons history may choose, I have no doubt at all.