Michigan Daily, March 20, 1989

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Elvis Costello

Nabeel Zuberi

It's two years since Blood And Chocolate poured out on to our turntables, and Spike reflects the changes in Elvis's life during this recording hiatus. There seems to be more domestic contentment; gone is the self-laceration, gone the angst-ridden love songs and the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Elvis's poison arrows are not directed at himself anymore; the songs have turned inside-out and now he's looking out rather than in.

On this record, the lyrics are given more room to breathe. The visceral thump of the Attractions has been replaced by the free form, looser arrangements of the musicians involved. Paul McCartney, Roger McGuinn, Allen Toussaint, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and members of Tom Waits group recorded Spike in London, Dublin, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. This is reflected in the dazzling diversity of the songs. The lyrics are simpler in approach. Rather than baffle us with his usual tricky wordplay, Elvis gives us a more narrative approach — short stories with a sting.

Elvis's best political writing is on this album, political songwriting that makes Lou Reed's New York droning seem insipid in comparison. "Tramp The Dirt Down" stomps very satisfyingly on Margaret Thatcher (or Mrs. Torture, as Salman Rushdie calls her in that book.) I'd have to agree with Elvis that in unreasonable times one can't be damn reasonable and damn liberal about things, and I'd join him gladly in tramping the dirt down on Thatcher's grave without a hint of remorse. This is not a death threat (I assure you!), merely a death wish. To an exquisite tune heavy with Celtic strains, Elvis sings: "When England was the whore of we world / And Margaret was her madam / The future was as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam."

Another beautiful melody enfolds the words of "Satellite" which reflects on how omnipotent communication systems make us more voyeuristic and passive, less socially engaged. The song points at the absurdity of our world, and this theme runs throughout the record. Elvis is like a rock 'n' roll Pynchon on songs like "God's Comic" and the funky "Chewing Gum," where he's at his blackest and funniest.

There will always be part of Elvis which wants to write the quintessential soul ballad, and "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" is a stunning attempt, featuring some breathtakingly beautiful rich piano from Crescent City maestro Allen Toussaint. Similarly gorgeous are "Baby Plays Around" (co-written with wife Cait O'Riordan) and the very Irish tunes "Any King's Shilling" and "Last Boat Lcaving." Even on the fluffy "Veronica" which he wrote with McCartney, Elvis fashions a pop tune that wouldn't he out of place on Rubber Soul or Revolver. Where, before, one was sometimes frustrated that great words did not have the musical arrangement to match, on Spike Elvis has composed his finest melodies.

All said and done, Spike is simply the best "rock" record to have arrived in 1989, and being Costello's most musical album to date, it proves that he is the greatest living singer-songwriter in the English-speaking world. There you have it: Elvis is King.

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The Michigan Daily, March 20, 1989

Nabeel Zuberi reviews Spike.


1989-03-20 Michigan Daily page 12 clipping 01.jpg
Photo by Keith Morris.

1989-03-20 Michigan Daily page 12.jpg
Page scan.


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