The Big Picture
"All over the world at the very same time people sharing the same sorrow / As the satellite looks down her darkest hour is somebody else's bright tomorrows."
The very week that Rupert Murdoch's Sky channel beams us all into the age of tabloid TV, Elvis Costello unveils his "Satellite," one of 14 new songs collectively entitled Spike. Perfect timing.
"...A woman goes into a photo booth which is really a blue screen where she can be superimposed onto any TV special of her own choice. Perfect fantasy come true. But, in order to have this moment of glory there's a big catch. She's gotta be in a peep show.
"A techno peep show where the lights peer right through her dress and she's revealed to this slimey, slobbering guy who's watching her on TV. And he's on TV too being watched by a host of other voyeurs who haven't got the courage of his lust. They’re afraid of the germs... It's very Philip K. Dick."
It is? I mean, yeah, it is! (Help). He smiles in satisfaction. I smile back in bemusement. Maybe, I venture, explanatory footnotes are advisable for us mere mortals who don't share the same multi-layered psyche of the Dicks and Elvises of this world?
"Yeah. These are they."
Oh, good. Today, dear reader, I am your bridge to the weird and frightening world of Elvis Costello aka "Spike" aka "The Beloved Entertainer." Neither the artist nor his complicit go-between are too certain of the wisdom of such a pact but, then again, songs as... as labyrinthine as "Satellite" might need some explaining. They are, to quote the man himself, "Big" songs. Too" BIG" too fully succeed perhaps?
"Possibly. The connections are ambiguous. I've worked out that "Satellite" would probably need to be 24 minutes long instead of six, to be completely explained. Somebody might find the key though. It's that kind of album".
Is it that important if most people don't find the key?
"Not really. So long as they connect with the idea of it being about pornography and the physical distances we now have between us. That's enough."
The Best Medicine
Spike is Costello's first vinyl outing since '86's schizoid coupling of the stately King Of America and the "narrow-minded, made-with-blinkers-on" brutalism of Blood And Chocolate. The latter is now described as "claustrophobic, not so much black and white as brown and red."
I hesitate to ask him for a colour scheme to fit Spike, a record brimming over with all the usual neuroses, psychosis and hypnosis. And then some.
It begins in a place where "you're nobody... till everybody thinks you're a bastard" and ends in tears with the "Last Boat Leaving." In between, lurk, in no particular order, bastards and murderers, hangmen and puppets, pissed up priests and mail order brides, voyeurs, vampires witches and wankers, an MFI God The Father and an Old Testament Thatcher pushing up the daisies.
Describe Spike for us, Elvis.
"Basically, it's a comedy record."
The Killing Joke
"Many of these songs," Elvis elucidates, "are, erm, tragi-comic. They're born of the idea that things are, have become, soo absurd that laughter is the only response."
On "Tramp The Dirt Down" you want Thatcher dead so you can dance on her grave. Literally. It's revenge fantasy as a valid response.
"That's the liberal interpretation. Looking for 'valid' responses. Valid doesn't come into it. It's an unreasonable response. 'Tramp The Dirt Down' is totally unpleasant. It doesn't fill me with happiness that I'm wishing someone dead, not even someone as repugnant as her. Some people have enough and reach for a hand grenade, I put it into my songs."
"Yeah. It's that moment when you don't know whether to laugh or kick the TV in. Y'know, when you feel that if you see Lawson or Tebbitt's smug face one more time filling the screen... aaaargh!"
Watching The Defectives
"Critics," Elvis Costello spikily informs me, "search for themes and directions in my work. I don't sit down, like Sting or somebody, and go, with furrowed brow, 'Oh, I dealt with the disintegration of relationships on my last manuscript, now I'm revisiting it again. It just isn't that conscious."
But, of all our literate obsessives — Cave, Morrissey, MacGowan, Smith — Costello walks a well trodden path where disintegration is the recurring theme. Love affairs, families, friendships, lusts all fall apart against backdrop of social decay and breakdown.
From the claustrophobic domestic jealousies of Trust, through the elegaic forlorn despair of "Shipbuilding" on into the multi-layered intrigues of this album's "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," "Chewing Gum" and "Any King's Shilling," Costello has specialised in the mechanics of disintegration.
"That's what I see when I look around me. It's there. I'm not a miserabilist."
No, but do you harbour an unhealthy fascination with the lives of the broken, the pitiful and the deluded?
"Well, I've been there. I've gotten that obsessive that it threatened to unhinge me. It's only a short step away."
Yeah. It crops up a lot on Spike, delusion in all its guises.
For instance, you've printed the lyrics to the monstrous "Stalin Malone" on the cover even though that track is an instrumental. Do the lyrics say something about the essence of Spike?
"I dunno, really. The words and music fought too much to work. Actually, the music was too good for me to f—up by droning over. It relieves you from my vocal interpretation."
The words, as they stand on the sleeve are pretty disturbing.
"Well, it is about a raving madman. Y'know, the guy who sits glowering in the corner of the pub and then says 'see that clock? I make it work.' Then, when the hands have moved, he goes, 'There, a told you so'. He thinks he controls everything but he's completely deluded.
"An extension of the character in 'Deep Dark Truthful Mirror' — that’s someone who won't go home and eventually starts hallucinating dead monkeys' hands and Persian cats and Jesus."
The temptation, of course, is to merge Elvis Costello with the songs. Do people always assume songs in the first person singular are autobiographical?
"Nearly always. That's why this record is consciously more third person. I couldn't be a great hack songwriter though. It has to come, on some level, from my emotions. People constantly misunderstand, though.
"Remember 'Possession' off Get Happy? Man, people read so much into that but what happened was I saw this beautiful waitress in a cafe in Hilversham and I said to Pete (Thomas) 'I want to possess her!' I banged out 'Possession' on the way back to the studio. We recorded it that night. Demented, really."
Ahhh, the very word. I'm glad you brought up the demented angle. That's another EC constant: there does seem to be an edge of dementia about some of your best work.
"I'm a very demented sort of person, I guess. (He says this the way other people say 'I'm a very lovable sort of person, actually'). Though when you're more in control, you can create dementedness and use it more as a dramatic tool."
Did you do that a lot on this record?
"Sometimes. Actually 'Stalin Malone' is a bit of both. You know Henry Street in Dublin? It came to me there. That is the most cacophonous street in the world when it's crowded. If you're in a fragile state of mind you can hear 800 fragmented conversations jabbering in your face. I tried for that in 'Stalin Malone' — cuckoo clocks, saxophones, old nightmare movies. it's kinda like a daymare..."
And "horses heads up in the trees ?
"No, that's real. That actually happened! Powder Miill Lane, Twickenham, I went to school round there. My grandfather went to The Military School of Music there. Very evocative place, Powder Mil Lane.
"Anyway, The King Of Portugal lived in exile there and my grandfather told this story about how the powder mill blew up one day just as The King Of Portugal’s carriage was passing by. Blew the lot up. There were horses heads up in the trees. That image stayed with me and eventually found a home in the song."
Beyond Good And Evil
These 14 new songs are a last resting place for Costello's last two years worth of dredged up memories, observations, fantasies and reflections. Hence, Spike is a sprawling affair juxtaposing the weirded-out, multi point of view, welcome-to-my-nightmare Costello with the chastened, straight forward, life's-a-bitch-but-I'm-a-stoical fellow Costello.
For every bittersweet ballad like "Baby Plays Around" or "Last Boat Leaving" there are a batch of brutally complex operations like "Miss Macbeth," the aforementioned "Satellite" and the cosmically absurd "God's Comic." The subject matter throughout is as adventurous as it is dramatically different.
"Yeah. On one hand you have 'Miss Macbeth' which is based on the old lady on the street that every child thinks is evil or witchy. So, I thought, f— it, what if she was actually evil.
"It goes against the scripture's idea that the poor and crippled rise above their adversity and are ultimately good. But, what if they're just bastards! Total f—in' no good evil bastards. Sometimes people are just what they seem."
And "God's Comic"? A cosmic joke about our received wisdoms concerning the creator?
"Yeah. I wrote that in Greenland. It's the only song I've written above the Arctic Circle. It was so Godlike in a childish sort of way — y'know how we perceive God and Santa Claus as wise old men with big white beards.
"Greenland was quite spiritually uplifting, the expanse, the whiteness, the whole feeling of being literally at the edge of the world. The song came out differently.
"It's about a drunken sleezebag priest dying and arriving in heaven which is God's MFi warehouse full of all his wonderful creations. God's reading Jeffrey Archer with one eye and Brett Easton Ellis with the other, watching Sky channel on one of his five functioning TVs and It's A Wonderful Life on another and... he's agog at humanity. y'know, it's come to this! Jesus! I should have given the world to the monkeys."
We go round and round like this, Elvis and me, till I'm pulled effortlessly into his absurdly rational outlook on LIFE. And Spike begins to make cohesive sense in a funny, cruel, honest sort of way.
It makes you think of how little pop delivers, how little you've come to expect of everybody but the few campaigners touched by the sordid, dark, demented pull of the everyday. Then Costello says something like:
"I find the actual impetus to write these songs pretty mind-boggling. I'm thinking these horrible thoughts about, say, Thatcher, and I have to face the fact that loads of people think she's wonderful."
And you're right back facing the absurd, again. It’s laugh or kick the telly in time. The lack of a reasonable alternative, a viable opposition, makes pawns of us all.
"The duplicity of it all is beyond me. There is no rational explanation for the way she is dismantling everything yet people seem complicit — 'take me to the abbatoir now, chop my head off'.
"It's extremely disturbing. There is no liberal or logical way forward anymore. I firmly believe that. There is no future for the reasonable voice. So..."
The Sound Of Spike
At the dead end of our tethers, we shift ground again. Music, Noise. The sound of Spike — the first record Elvis Costello made "entirely with a drum machine". These days, the "sound" of a record isn't as important as it once was. I don't mean in a CD, state of the art way, more in a conceptual, let's-make-the-sound-echo-and-compliment-the-content way.
Think of the fabled "metallic grey" Dylan cloaked 'Blonde On Blonde' in or the live, everything bleeding onto everything else charge of primal Rolling Stones. The tyranny of technology and the shadow of the studio has, paradoxically, distracted performers from thinking of their songs in a sonic, as well as stylistic, framework.
Like REM and Nick Cave in their separate ways, Costello has sculpted a noise to fit the mood of his creations.
"With 'Blood And Chocolate' we went in the old Olympic studios where The Stones did 'The Last Time' and, in this big cavernous room, we attempted to freeze frame The Attractions at their most brutally claustrophobic which I thought was their greatest strength.
"This time we tried to approach the songs as soundscapes — that they should dictate the noise. At it's extreme, this method will give you a John Zorn album."
Or a Tom Waits' album. I notice you've used Michael Blair and Marc Ribot.
"Yeah. Michael's at the centre. He's like an interior decorator. One time, in a completely neurotic way, I listened to the whole album by homing in on Blair's percussion. It just jumped out! I thought Spike Jones! That's it".
So, that's why it's called 'Spike: The Beloved Entertainer'. I see.
"Or it could be after the bulldog in Tom & Jerry. Or it could be a statement — Spike the beloved entertainer. It's funny how everybody assumes spike is a noun."
The Last Laugh
The most beloved entertainer on Spike is not Elvis himself, but Macca. Paul McCartney takes his place (two songs co-written, bass played, presence felt) alongside a remarkable array of musicians that include Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Allen Touissant, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band plus a host of itinerant Celts.
It was recorded in Dublin, London, Hollywood and New Orleans and owes whatever creative cohesion it contains to Costello's sprawling vision as interpreted by the above gents. If there were serious difficulties in either communication or gestation, he's not letting on.
"You gotta understand, like I had to, that most people do not see the world as I do. There was always the awful possiblity that, say, The Dirty Dozen would listen to me bashing away at 'Miss Macbeth' and hear this awful lunatic singing about a witch he once knew and it'd be 'er, well, it's like this, man, we're gonna sorta pass on your album. Thanks for the offer, anyway. See ye'..."
Some people might have difficulty equating your (cough) somewhat dramatic worldview with McCartney's 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' waccy baccy bent?
"I know more of his music than cynical people might expect. Sean. When we first went to America and it was Foreigner and Journey and all that layered, sugary, anthemic shite, Wings' stuff like 'With A Little Luck' or 'Dancing Queen' was like manna from heaven."
What! All that layered, sugary anaemic shite?
"Well, a lot of his post-Beatles' work is not to my taste. We had to accommodate the difference. You know how it is. If I was to say 'OK, Paul, I'm gonna write a song about a f—in' BIG BLACK CROW, he'd probably pass on that."
With that, he's off, with pregnant wife, Cait, in tow for a midnight singing and signing session outside Piccadilly's Tower Records. In the smalltalk of the photo session, he makes it known that his current listening pleasure derives from "instrumental stuff like Henry Threadgill and Bill Frizell".
That he "loved" The Sugarcubes at Kilburn — "they're so funny, one minute they sound I like nothing you've ever heard in the world, the next they're like some dreadful 1978 second division outfit."
That the best pop music he's heard in the last year has been — wait for it — Bon Jovi's 'Bad Medicine', Yazz's 'The Only Way Is Up’, Neneh Cherry's 'Buffalo Stance' and Aerosmith's 'Dude Looks Like A Lady'. And that "pop should have exploded after 'When Will I Be Famous"', there you go, we're back with absurdity:
"Yeah. There's no escape. I heard Tebbitt on TV saying 'I have no conscience. I admit it'. Grinning inanely. He thinks he's a witty, intelligent guardian of the public morality. He's in that position of real power yet he's totally deluded. At least 'Stalin Malone' is only ranting in the corner of the pub.
"And Maxwell! This is a classic. He's just made an official announcement that he's retiring from charity. It's worn him out so much, he's wasting away, poor dear. y'know — 'I've given enough'. Brilliant. Utterly brilliant."
You just have to laugh. Along with The Beloved Entertainer.