In one of the few pop careers of the '80s premised on challenging the listener Elvis Costello has explored virtually every genre from ranting punk and rockabilly to crooning jazz and country. On Spike (Warner Bros.), his first new album in more than two years, he's done something different yet again. Deliberately fragmenting genres, he has brought together musicians of divergent tastes and temperaments; cutting and pasting lyrics, he's created songs that alternate between earnest moral outrage and a sardonic surrealism. The result is a collage of contrasting musical textures, moods and melodies, sometimes pretty, sometimes tart, often startling.
The album's one buoyantly melodic song, "Veronica," a collaboration with Paul McCartney, turns out — and this is a typical touch — to be about the daydreams of a senile old woman. In "Tramp the Dirt Down," a relentlessly bitter broadside scored for gentle Irish pipes and keening fiddle, the singer imagines gleefully burying the corpse of a cynical politician; lest anyone miss the allusion to Margaret Thatcher, he sings the song's refrain to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman."
Songs like this conjure up an aura of folk-like simplicity. Yet never before has Costello made electric music of such daunting dissonance: "Chewing Gum," with its hints of vintage Captain Beefheart, bristles with loopy guitar and a waddling sousaphone, courtesy of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans. On other tracks, Costello has help from guitarist Roger McGuinn, singer Chrissie Hynde and rhythm-and-blues legend Allen Toussaint, whose elegant piano dominates "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," a lyric brimming with images of phantasmagorical cruelty.
Artfully constructed and eclectic though it is, Spike never stoops to pastiche or facile wordplay. If the album has a fault, it lies in its strenuous self-consciousness — some of it feels inert. Still, chances are you've never heard music as infectiously dotty as "Chewing Gum" or as majestically demonic as "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror." In these days of low-risk pop, that is cause for cheer.