Because Elvis Costello's career has often seemed a series of willful changes — each one negating the last, as if designed to confound all but the most obsessive fans — it's easy to hear his most recent album, Spike (Warner Brothers), as merely the latest in the series. King of America, released in 1986, offered pristine, folk-inspired settings to back up Costello's most desolate compositions; Blood and Chocolate, released later the same year, was in part a raving homage to the garage rock of his early career. The music on the new album makes a point of being all over the place — touching on New Orleans parade marches and Irish ballads, and even cutting back and forth between incompatible styles in the same song, as in "Miss Macbeth." But instead of giving the impression of a desperate eclecticism the album takes .on a rich, hallucinatory glow, as if all of pop history were being refracted in a fun-house mirror. On one level, this is Costello's version of a super-session record, with combinations like Roger McGuinn and Paul McCartney playing on one track ("...This Town..."), which must gratify the fannish imagination of the singer. Yet it's an encouraging sign that this most loquacious of tunesmiths is interested in music for its own sake, and not just as a backdrop for words. (There's even a lopsided jazz instrumental, called, of all things, "Stalin Malone.") In its breadth and sense of exploration, this album may be the most far-ranging of his career.
As rock's premier prisoner of language, Costello has often deliberately tripped himself up with a dizzying web of puns and turns of phrase. It seemed that his mission was to illustrate how discourse, and especially the guarded talk between unhappy lovers, is fraught with duplicity. Sentences never meant what their speaker intended; speech itself was an elaborate setup you could never extricate yourself from. By 1984's Goodbye Cruel World, however, the approach had worn itself out, with the songwriter's facility edging toward self-parody. Recently — most notably on King of America and Spike — the lyrics have taken on a more narrative form, if with some jarring dislocations: one of Costello's favorite devices is to slowly dissolve the differing points of view in a song until all that is left is a single, quivering "I." Songs that begin as reasonable conversations turn out to be lonely, out-of-whack monologues.
On Spike, the scenarios have opened up as much as the language has. Costello now allows himself the luxury of fantasy, as two of the album's finest songs indicate. In "Satellite," peep-show exchanges between isolated men and women who watch each other on television are broadcast as an entertainment network. The song has the gauzy, half-remembered shimmer of some lost piece of early-sixties schmalz, which only compounds its essential perversity. (Given Costello's delight in twisting old tunes, it's a wonder he didn't name the song "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.") With the song cast as an aching duet with Chrissie Hynde (are there two voices in rock better suited to each other?), its pornographic leer, which barely hides a throbbing sadness, seems a comment on the voyeurism of being a pop listener, on the solitary melancholy of immersing oneself in secondhand emotions, which always remain an arm's length away. "God's Comic" follows a dead "comical priest" up to Heaven, where he shows us what the Creator does when He's just hanging out: "So there he was on a water bed / Drinking a cola of a mystery brand / Reading an airport novelette, listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Requiem'." The delicate, soft-shoe melody veers close to sentimentality, but that is washed away by the final verse, when God Himself, for no apparent reason, decides to disappear. Perhaps He's just a little tired; perhaps He never existed at all.
For Costello, a songwriter to whom craft comes so easily (and sometimes so thoughtlessly), the saving grace has often been his own irrationality. Understanding that pop protest follows the rules of rhetoric rather than the laws of logic, he knows how to heighten the suppressed rage in the voices of the dispossessed until they exceed the polite bounds of what is being said. What makes "Let Him Dangle," about capital punishment, so fearsome is the little explosions tucked away in the arrangement: the muffled yelps of "String him up," the uncharted acridness of the guitar playing. The song becomes a debate on the argument that everyone is expendable. That idea carries over into what could be the album's most dramatic song, "Tramp the Dirt Down." Like "Pills and Soap" before it, the song opens up with a media-sanctioned scene of public degradation, this time a news photo of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "kissing a child who was obviously in pain." Costello pulls off a few witty lines — the sharpest being "When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam" — but the comfort of such wit has nothing to do with what gives the song its power. Rather, what makes the song hurt is the remorseless defiance with which the singer vows to dance on Thatcher's grave even as he knows, according to the song's final verse, that it will probably end up the other way around.
"Tramp the Dirt Down" is the kind of paradox that Costello has sustained at his finest — especially in the way that the vocal's bitterness scratches against the surface of the tune's Gaelic stateliness. By now, he is a master of forms he can't help transgressing. On Spike, the blithe-sounding single "Veronica" turns out to concern an old woman slipping slowly and uneasily into forgetfulness. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" sets a woman's mad imaginings to the jolly soulfulness of Allen Toussaint's piano and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. "Pads, Paws and Claws" is rockabilly that disassembles itself before your ears. The careful subversion of Costello's writing and performing insures that both the scholar and the blasphemer lurking in him are given full voice. He now stands as the most trenchant heir to the mid-sixties tradition of literate, melodically adventurous songwriting, which taken to its logical conclusion has often seemed a closed-off end in itself. A writer of would-be standards that hardly anyone bothers to remake, the possessor of an affecting voice that reveals strain at every turn, Costello has left a long trail of work that makes no sense at all by approved rock standards. But if approved rock standards meant anything to him he wouldn't have made an album that exceeds an hour and could lose three tracks painlessly ("Chewing Gum," "Stalin Malone," and "Miss Macbeth"), wouldn't acknowledge his new record label by sticking his Harlequin head through the Warner Brothers logo on the cover of his new album, wouldn't pray to outlive his beloved Prime Minister. On Spike, Costello has learned that he doesn't need to reconcile his contradictions; rather, they're the source of his strength.
Lou Reed's New York (Sire) has been treated as a tour de force, most suspiciously by the singer himself, who on the back of the album instructs us to listen to it "in one 58-minute (14 songs!) sitting as though it were a hook or a movie." It's surprising that Reed still feels he has to make a case for his literary reputation, after more than two decades of stunning, though erratic, work. Straining for a masterpiece, as he has done periodically during his solo career (1973's Berlin, 1978's Street Hassle), he misses (fortunately), and comes up with something more vital: a talky bull session as full of insight and preposterousness as anything he has done. For all the vaunted topical seriousness of the album, the secret premise here is refreshingly loose: Reed scanning the morning paper, mouthing off about everything from crack dealers to the environment. Instead of responding to the correctness of any of the views that the songs put forth, you respond to the tone of the proclamations, which is alternately haughty, deadpan, and hilarious.
On his previous album, 1986's hodgepodge Mistrial, Reed made shaky moves toward blunt social commentary in songs such as "Video Violence" and "The Original Wrapper." Aside from the fact that they weren't particularly good songs, what was disheartening about them was how they abandoned Reed's trademark dispassion in favor of the blandly responsible carping of your average, dutiful citizens, most of whom don't make records to air their mild discontent. Even in the ostensibly confessional The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts (which might be the genuine masterworks of his solo career), the madly shifting points of view would have been unthinkable without Reed's ability to observe everything in a full circle around the subject, even when he was that subject. When he proclaimed, in "The Blue Mask," that he was just "an average guy," the irony was so broad it was almost beside the point, and his distance from his own claim was what made the song cut.
The worst songs on New York seem like afterthoughts, attempts to give the project a completeness that it doesn't need. "Xmas in February" is a soggy Vietnam-slice-of-life story so flat you could swear that it was cribbed from any of the rush of war movies from three or four years ago. Neither "There Is No Time" nor "Strawman" can make much out of the pounding, anthemlike forward motion of its setting. Framing an attack on Jesse Jackson with images of Kurt Waldheim meeting with the Pope has gratuitousness written all over it, but the worse trouble with "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim" is that when Reed expresses doubts about Jackson's "Common Ground" speech with the query "Is 'common ground' a word or just a sound?" he falls into the old trap of claiming that black oratory has more to do with feeling than with sense.
For the most part, though, the songs rise or fall not on Reed's beliefs but on the slangy, sneaky way he draws you into his one-sided conversations. "Last Great American Whale" ought to be an unbearable idea for a song; instead, as it widens to include the perils of media faith (and, possibly, the stubbornness of Reed's career), it takes on an offhand majesty. "Halloween Parade" casts Reed as a bemused bystander at Greenwich Village's annual bacchanalia, quietly noticing the absence of familiar characters lost to AIDS. The jarring tribute to Andy Warhol (whose neutral stare influenced much of Reed's songwriting), "Dime Store Mystery," interlaces images of the human (the title phrase) and the divine (Christ's last temptation) to comment on the artist's icy elusiveness. And no one but Reed would begin a song about prospective fatherhood ("Beginning of a Great Adventure") with the line "It might be great to have a kid that I could kick around / A little me to fill up with my thoughts."
What shoves the album along just as much as Reed's talking-blues, beat-inflected vocals is the stark force of the band's playing. Since "The Blue Mask," Reed has been rediscovering the joys of the lineup of two guitars, bass, and drums, and here, even though he doesn't have the wiry scrawl of the guitarist Robert Quine this time around, the band applies a lean, echoey sheen to even the most raging tunes, without simply reverting to the pent-up rhythmic fury of the Velvet Underground. The sound it gets, full of light and unguarded movement, is as appropriate a musical counterpart as Reed has ever had, well suited to the lyrics' sprawl. The grand intentions of New York may turn out to have been a sop to Reed's newfound quizzical status as a grand old man of rock, a perch that has risen ever since The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts announced him to be a happily married man who lets off steam on his motorbike, and not the sexual question mark who liked to simulate shooting up onstage. Yet, making melodies out of the barest handful of chords, talking trash with the best of them (including his former selves), Reed gives New York the spin of much of his most scabrous work, in which you can never tell what he's going to say next.