New York Times, February 8, 1989

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New label, old hands


Stephen Holden

Elvis Costello's excellent new album, Spike (Warner Brothers) may be the most stylistically diverse collection of songs in the prolific English singer and composer's 12-year recording career. The record, which marks his debut on Warner Brothers Records after a decadelong sojourn on Columbia, has the kind of freewheeling eclecticism in its arrangements that characterized the mature Beatles. The instrumentation ranges from Irish traditional to brass band, and Mr. Costello's songs touch even more bases than his 1982 tour de force, Imperial Bedroom.

The album's Beatlesque flavor is underscored by two songs — "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws" — written by Mr. Costello and Paul McCartney. The two are among 11 songs they wrote together last year. More of their collaborations are expected to be unveiled on Mr. McCartney's next solo album.

The unlikely teaming of Mr. Costello, whose musical image is that of a sarcastic misanthrope, with Mr. McCartney, whose songs usually radiate sweetness and light, has proved artistically fruitful. "Veronica," the album's first single, examines the life of a woman who has retreated to a private world of memories in an old-age home. In a telephone interview from London last week, Mr. Costello described "Veronica" as "a wishful, hopeful song about there being a place in the mind we can go when it appears all is lost."

The collaboration, in which the two men shared equally in the music and lyrics, was a process Mr. Costello described as "a musical Ping-Pong match."

"It was a workshop situation," Mr. Costello said. "We would sit around with a couple of guitars, a piano and a tape recorder and throw around ideas, improvising until we got a structure. Generally, if it sounds as though I wrote something, Paul wrote it, and if it sounds as though Paul wrote it, I did."

One of the album's most arresting songs, "Tramp the Dirt Down," is an outspoken denunciation of Britain's Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; an eerily beautiful melody bears a message of towering contempt. Mr. Costello's lyric labels England "the whore of the world" and Mrs. Thatcher "her madam."

The album's finest song may be "God's Comic," the saga of a third-rate music-hall performer who dies and goes to heaven. The protagonist, who used to impersonate a drunken priest on the stage, is terrified of confronting God. But when he finally meets his Maker, God is sitting on a waterbed sipping cola, reading a paperback and listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem. God tells him, "I've been wading though all this unbelievable junk and wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys."

"I didn't know whether to spell it 'monkeys' or 'Monkees,' " Mr. Costello said, laughing. "I even considered working in an allusion to 'Last Train to Clarksville.'"

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New York Times, February 8, 1989


Stephen Holden previews Spike.


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