D.P.A. Mac Manus aka Elvis Costello, is one of the best rock 'n' roll composers in the world today — period. Sure, there are "better singers," if I understand the term, and he's not the most charismatic performer you'll see unless you're partial to the bifocaled "hacker" look.
But there's little doubt Costello is pop music's most gifted lyricist, and he's been neck-and-neck with Tom Waits as the undisputed master of "Strange and Beautiful Music" for 10 years now.
With the unveiling of Spike, Costello's first album in two years, it's obvious the lovable iconoclast hasn't been silent because of lack of inspiration. Spike contains 14 of the most clever and interesting songs he's written. It's a better album than the critically acclaimed King of America, if you can believe it.
Costello's latest tragicomedy hit is "Let Him Dangle," the Thin Blue Line of pop music. "Dangle" outlines the folly leading to the execution of Derek Bentley, a not-so-innocent man who is sentenced by Britain's criminal justice system to die in the place of his murderous accomplice who is "too young to swing."
For those who prefer Costello in a lighter vein, Spike includes two collaborations with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, "Pads, Paws and Claws" and a lovely number called "Veronica."
"Veronica" is reminiscent of Lennon-McCartney's "Julia" because of the homage Costello pays to a woman who vaguely remembers her name and her glorious youth 65 years ago. "Pads, Paws and Claws" is typical Costello though, with lots of ambiguity and woman-as-predator metaphors for those who have long suspected him of misogyny.
Then there's "God's Comic," a song that won't make the Vatican Top 40. It's an absurdist drama about a decadent priest who finally dies and finds himself face-to-face with his Creator, white-bearded and full of regret at not having "given the world to the monkeys."
"Tramp the Dirt Down" is a scorching political ballad that equates Margaret Thatcher and Great Britain with the Whore of Babylon. It's sure to remind many Dylan's "Masters of War" and some of Bruce Cockburn's fierce-but-pretty hate-ballads. Tame stuff, huh?
Spike is Costello's best album to date, thanks to such diverse sidemen as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, T-Bone Burnett, Chrissie Hynde, Benment Tench and Marc Ribocot (on loan from Tom Waits), Roger McGuinn and Paul McCartney. Even though the Attractions aren't Costello's house-band anymore, his sound hasn't suffered as a result.
The new album contains the first jazz-instrumental of his career. "Stalin Malone" is served up with a funky, Louisiana brass band sound (thanks to the the Dirty Dozen Brass Band). He never would've attempted such an ambitious and "alien" sound with the hard rocking Attractions.
Costello's wife, the Pogues' Cait O'Riordan, co-wrote the album's quietest number, the bittersweet "Baby Plays Around," an exploration of (marital?) infidelity and its discontents.
These days, Costello finds himself retreating from the obscure lyrics and unrefined sound that first endeared him with the critics in the late '70s because, quite frankly, obscurity hasn't caught on. He's found a middleground between so-called "high art" and mass appeal. If the songs on Spike are any indication where the Beloved Entertainer's head is at, the public is in for a lot of exceptional music from this fellow. (A)