Elvis Costello writing songs with Paul McCartney?
That was the tantalizing rumor that surfaced in connection with this Costello album, his first for the Warner Bros. label, after a disillusioned Costello severed his ties with CBS.
The notion of Costello, rock's most vitriolic chronicler of emotional fascism, teaming up with the man whose very name means pop music, was enough to conjure hallucinogenic images in the minds of Costello fans.
The result, at first listen, sounds like a glorious failure. Costello has pulled together a wildly disparate crew of co-conspirators to back him on songs that travel all over the stylistic map.
But by third listen, this collection starts to sound like a masterpiece.
Collection is the operative word. The only thing common to the songs on Spike is the complexity of Costello's lyrics; the music runs from funk to jazz to rockabilly to breathtaking pure pop, sometimes in the same song, and is played by a stunning array of musicians: guitarist Marc Ribot, of Tom Waits's band; the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; co-producer T Bone Burnett on occasional acoustic guitar; ex-Byrds man Roger McGuinn on guitar on one track — and McCartney on bass on two songs, including the irresistible single, "Veronica."
The first striking thing about Spike is the cover picture of a heavily grease-painted Costello grinning like a demonic court jester. Beneath his head, seemingly mounted like a hunting trophy, is the phrase, "The Beloved Entertainer" — a seeming stab by Costello at an industry that has an ever-diminishing patience for his creative mood swings.
The leadoff song, "...This Town...," confirms it. "You're nobody 'til everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard," he sings over a stretched-out melody. Yep, still angry after all these years.
Nevertheless, Spike may rescue Costello from radio purgatory. Melody works its smoky way into everything, the musicianship is of a peerless calibre and entertaining to boot, and Costello's vocals are as assured as they've ever been.
Costello has plundered rock history for inspiration ever since his '77 debut, My Aim Is True, offered the emotional equivalent to the music of the burgeoning punk; new wave movement.
He was his own man then, and Costello has never balked at confounding an audience that respects artistry but craves the familiar. Spike may seem like the latest in series, of wilful left turns; in fact, there's nothing difficult about it at all, despite the wide array of styles.
Not for people who like transcendent pop. like "Veronica," the swoony "Satellite" or the soul-gospel of "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror." Not for people who like slippery rockabilly, like "Pads, Paws and Claws."
Especially not for people who like their vitriol straight up, no chaser. "Tramp the Dirt Down" is a vicious attack on Margaret Thatcher with a vocal like an assassin's bullet. "Let Him Dangle" depicts the reasons why people occasionally demand the return Of capital punishment. and Costello cogently argues against it. "As the hangman shook Bentley's hand to calculate his weight" will compete for line of the year.
Musically, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band funks and finger-pops through several songs, with Marc Ribot skewering the wonderful "Chewing Gum" with a clattering atonal solo.
"Last Boat Leaving" ends the album on a heart-tugging note, about a man sailing off to war or another country — it's never made clear. However. what comes through clearly in the 15 songs on Spike is Costello's insistence on remaining true to his talent — and his commitment to rock music, a business that owes him more than it can repay.
Although a few hit singles will probably do.