After a two-year layoff, Elvis Costello is back without a trace of rustiness.
His latest songs, varied in musical style, are brimming with sharp observations on human relations — whether it's the relationships of lovers and their loves, leaders and their countries or gods and their creations. Less introspective than usual, Spike is a collection of stories that pulls you in and makes you a willing, if occasionally uncomfortable, voyeur.
Costello comes out swinging with the opening number, "This Town." Describing three people hustling for success, he sings: "You're nobody till everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard." The music packs a potent punch as well with Roger McGuinn on 12-string guitar and Paul McCartney playing bass.
Costello is even more forceful on the album's two overtly political songs: "Let Him Dangle" and "Tramp the Dirt Down."
"Dangle," inspired by a 1952 murder trial, would serve nicely as the state song for 1980s Florida. With a half-crocked sound similar to that of Tom Waits (two members of Waits' group are among the album's musicians), the song tells the story of Derek Bentley, sentenced to hang for a murder someone else supposedly committed at his request.
"If killing anybody is such a terrible crime / Why does this bloodthirsty chorus come round from time to time / ... From a welfare state to society murder / Bring back the noose is always heard / Whenever those swine are under attack / But it won't make you even / It won't bring him back," Costello sings before launching into a final shout of "Let him dangle. String him up!"
"Tramp the Dirt Down" is a from-the-gut attack on Margaret Thatcher. Beginning with Thatcher's kissing a child on the campaign trail ("Can you imagine all that greed and avarice / Coming down on that child's lips"), the song reveals an England so bleak under Tory rule that the only hope is to live long enough to tramp the dirt down on Thatcher's grave.
Other songs are less blunt but no less powerful.
The starkly arranged "Baby Plays Around" co-written by Costello and his wife Cait O'Riordan of the Pogues — would be at home in a Nashville beer joint or a New York blues bar. With acoustic guitar and Mitchell Froom's organ providing almost the entire accompaniment, Costello's voice is pushed center stage. And while his voice has never been considered a great one, few could deliver these lines any better than he does: "It's not open to discussion anymore / She walks those shiny streets / I walk the worn-out floor / She's all I have worth living for / Baby plays, baby plays around."
"God's Comic" is hauntingly surreal, taking a drunken priest "with a joke for the flock and a hand up your fleece" to meet his reward and Maker. And it's a Maker with second thoughts, one who says "I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk and wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys." Set off musically with touches of Spanish guitar, banjo and cello, "God's Comic" is not easily forgotten.
Legendary New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint makes "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" memorable. His playing stands out with its half-gospel, half-barroom warmth. Although dominating, Toussaint's elegant touch doesn't beat the song into submission but elevates it.
That's a strength of Spike. The presence of McCartney (who co-wrote "Veronica" and the rollicking "Pads, Paws and Claws"), Toussaint, Froom, McGuinn, O'Riordan, Chrissie Hynde, Benmont Tench, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and T-Bone Burnett could cause some albums to sink under the weight of such an assemblage of talent and ego. Instead, everyone contributes, then gets out of the way.
Complex and occasionally cynical, Spike won't make Costello the biggest thing since U2 or George Michael. It would be just and right if it did, but as his songs reveal so clearly, this is not a just and right world.