The dour, bearded man wearing a crown who stared out from a record sleeve three years ago was an unhappy monarch. An emperor in new clothes who stood naked, pointing and laughing at everyone, including himself.
The man on the cover of Spike grins inanely, wearing black and white harlequin make-up, his head mounted on a tartan wall in a trophy room.
From King Of America to court jester, the changes in Elvis Costello in those 36 months are, on the surface, merely cosmetic. He's still angry and bitter, but less so about himself. King Of America marked the end of Costello's confessional phase, he's a happier man in personal terms, though the vitriol is still present, diverted rather than diluted.
Songs written in the first person are scarce on Spike, as Costello's talent for narrative improves with experience, age, maturity, call it what you will. That's not to say he's turned his back on his past, his previous soul-searching has been "spiked," but is still there on the desk-top should he ever need to refer to it.
Spike is a difficult record to live with. Previously we have been able to take the man's own depressive outlook with a pinch of salt, they were always someone else's problems. Here the world we all populate is exposed as cruel, vindictive and heartless. We can't escape it. We're stuck with warmongers, Mrs Thatcher, uncaring authoritarians and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Costello puts everything in perspective right from the start with the opening "You're Nobody 'Till Everybody In This Town Thinks You're A Bastard," to give it its full title.
A distant black sheep cousin to John Lennon's "Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out," instead of Lennon's maudlin self-pity, Costello advocates the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" policy. You have to be a real git to get on.
"...This Town..." is an indication of a change in musical policy. The Attractions are nowhere to be seen, Elvis opting for a dual Rickenbacker attack from Roger McGuinn and Paul McCartney. He's picked his playmates carefully, depending on the song, with Chrissie Hynde, Christy Moore, T Bone Burnett, Davy Spillane, and a fair whack of Tom Waits' band wearing the number 12 shirts.
Costello once described Goodbye Cruel World as "the worst record of the best songs I've written" and he's learned from the experience, jettisoning the often inflexible Attractions. Goodbye Cruel World could have been a great record, were Elvis accompanied by his current cohorts or The Confederates from King Of America.
The only concession to the "traditional" Costello sound of old seems to be the single "Veronica" (an ear for the airwaves is a handy thing when you've been away for a while), where the lonely spinster stares out the window waiting for the man who left her 65 years previous to return.
But let's not forget the court jester; Costello has rarely been wittier than on the vaudevillian shuffle of "God's Comic" where Elvis meets his maker lying on a water bed listening to Lloyd Webber's 'Requiem': "He said before it had really begun / 'I prefer the one about my son / I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk / And wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys'."
Politically, the message is less obtuse than on, say, "Shipbuilding" or "Oliver's Army." The subtle lyrical imagery gives way to no-nonsense protest, best illustrated on "Tramp The Dirt Down," an indictment to the evil that is Thatcher, which, paradoxically borrows its melody line from Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely."
It's one of two songs where traditional Irish musicians are involved (Moore, Spillane, refugees from The Waterboys), the other being "Any King's Shilling." Originally written about his grandfather, Elvis makes appeals "Please don't put your silly head in that British soldier's hat."
"Let Him Dangle" addresses the hanging debate, using the factual case of Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig, where Bentley failed to be given a last-minute reprieve. A chilling highlight among 14 very disturbing songs.
The voyeurist Costello of old is reprised for the beautiful "Satellite" ("now they both know what it's like inside a pornographer's trousers") and the romantic fool holds back another tear on "Baby Plays Around."
Following on, albeit two years later, from Elvis' two best albums, Spike is a bold move where others would plump for the easy-way-out consolidatory collection. It's an exciting, inspiring, bewildering and bloody frightening record which could well be regarded as his most accomplished yet.
Twelve albums in as many years is a tall order for anyone, and Elvis has occasionally tripped — but he's never fallen over. He used to be disgusted, now he tries to be amused, but he's always entertaining.
Subtitled "The Beloved Entertainer," the new LP from Elvis Costello grapples with Lou Reed's New York as the most complete pop statement about our sick little earth.
Elvis Costello is among us again, uncomfortable and compelling. Hello, cruel world.