Elvis Costello's sheer productivity used to trip him up. A dozen full-length albums from his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, to the new Spike (Warner Bros. 25848, LP, cassette and CD) haven't been enough to hold his output. But with Spike, his first album since 1986 (when he released two), Mr. Costello has taken the time to make his tunes and arrangements as well crafted — and crafty — as his words. It's his best album since 1981's Trust.
Although Mr. Costello's first songs established him as an articulately venomous observer of characters and scenes, he went on to write narratives, free associations, love songs, political parables and pure conundrums, spewing aphorisms as often as other rock songwriters used the word "baby." Between albums, he recorded singles, EP's and enough unreleased material to fill two catch-up albums, Taking Liberties and a 1987 British compilation, Out of Our Idiot. And he put out batches of genre experiments — soul, country, jazz, Beatlesque pop, punk — and widely varied assortments that assured he would never be typecast. Just to make sure, he multiplied his pseudonyms, among them the Coward Brothers (with T Bone Burnett), the Imposter, Napoleon Dynamite and his real name, Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus.
But as the songs poured out, almost compulsively, Mr. Costello didn't always customize music to words. His verbal facility could make his musical choices seem arbitrary, like random borrowings from a vast record collection. On his two 1986 albums, King of America and Blood & Chocolate, Mr. Costello sang more passionately than ever, but he often spewed out lyrics that were barely tethered to melodies. With Spike, he has realized once again that a rock song travels on its sound as well as its sense.
Spike doesn't confine itself with a literary strategy or musical concept. It's just a group of smart, inventive, polished and disquieting songs — 14 on the LP, 15 on the cassette and CD (and the 15th, "Coal-Train Robberies," is worth having) — and it's coherent simply because Mr. Costello is at home in styles from pop-rock to gospel to quasi-Irish ballad to funk, and with attitudes from jaundiced sarcasm to righteous anger.
Many of the songs bypass ordinary pop-song structures, sprouting unlikely intros (as in "...This Town...") and radically shifting arrangements ("Miss Macbeth"), and as usual for Mr. Costello, even standard pop structures carry nonstandard tidings.
Some of the songs are as straightforward as Mr. Costello gets. "Baby Plays Around," written with Mr. Costello's wife Cait O'Riordan, is a pristine pop ballad: "To hold on to that girl I had to let her go." "Chewing Gum," set to dissonant funk recalling James Brown, is about a mail-order marriage that turns disillusioned. "Let Him Dangle" retells a capital-punishment case and concludes "It won't make you even / It won't bring him back."
In "Any King's Shilling," backed by Irish harp, pipes and whistles, one friend warns another to "Stay at home tonight. ... don't put your silly head in that British soldier's hat. ... I can't say more it would be telling."
"Tramp the Dirt Down," a sequel to "Pills and Soap" and "Shipbuilding," Mr. Costello's bitter songs about Margaret Thatcher's England, starts with the image of Mrs. Thatcher kissing an unwilling baby and rises to condemn British callousness and violence: "I never thought for a moment that human life could be so cheap," Mr. Costello sings quietly, his voice breaking.
Mr. Costello co-wrote two songs on Spike with Paul McCartney, the ex-Beatle whose own recent output suffers from saccharine whimsy. But Mr. Costello managed to resurrect the rocking, enigmatic McCartney of "Junior's Farm" and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey." The buoyant "Veronica" is about a withdrawn old woman losing even her most romantic memories; "Pads, Paws and Claws," arranged with fuzz-toned guitar and plinking marimba (a la Tom Waits) that give way to a rockabilly bounce, sounds as barbed as the romance it describes.
The McCartney collaborations aren't even the songs with the catchiest melodies. "...This Town...," three vignettes about philistinism and materialism, sails into its chorus with chiming glockenspiel and 12-string guitar (from the Byrds' Roger McGuinn): "You're nobody till everybody in this town / Thinks you're a bastard." "God's Comic" — a jaunty music-hall turn in which God looks at human culture, shrugs in disbelief and decides on a vacation — features a chorus of "Now I'm dead" as overdubbed Costellos cheerfully harmonize "dead, dead, dead, dead" above and below.
"Miss Macbeth" is a mini-suite, akin to such Beatles songs as "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" or "A Day in the Life." The song may be about a local eccentric or (my guess) a teacher wrongly accused of molesting her charges; it spins together occult fantasies and down-to-earth responses — "As they tormented her she rose to the bait / Even a scapegoat must have someone to hate" — while the music evolves from a barrage of distortion to a sardonic oompah chorus.
Other songs defy synopsis, yet the music makes them resonant. "Satellite," about television and "the thrill of watching somebody watching those forbidden things we never mention," is a floating, slow-dance ballad; "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," about unfulfilled promise, has a gospelly melody punched out by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, with Mr. Costello belting the song like Van Morrison. And "Coal-Train Robberies," a montage of modern-world stupidities, roars along like an updated version of the Band's "This Wheel's On Fire."
The album has only two missteps: "Stalin Malone," a passable instrumental for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and "Last Boat Leaving," whose borrowings (from "All My Trials" and the Beatles' Abbey Road) are too obvious. But Spike proves that Mr. Costello has regained his balance; as in his best songs for the past decade, it's hard to imagine either words or music without the other. And by the time listeners have pieced together the odder songs to their own satisfaction, Mr. Costello will probably have finished a sequel.