SUNY Brockport Stylus, March 8, 1989

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Costello continues to please fans, now
with more diverse musical potpourri


Patrick Stella

Elvis Costello has had a tough career. The critics love him, his fans are loyal, but the general public wants nothing to do with him.

In 1977 he was to be the next Bob Dylan. He writes catchy melodic hooks, thoughtful lyrics, and sings with passion although he may not have a "pretty" voice. He's been compared to everyone from Buddy Holly to George Gershwin and still he hasn't broken through commercially. With his fourteenth album, Spike, it looks as though it just doesn't matter any more.

With the exception of his debut in 1977, he's been backed by his band The Attractions which it looked as though he had gotten rid of in 1985 with an album largely recorded without them called King of America, but brought them back a year after with Blood and Chocolate. It's now been two years since his last official release, which is a long time for Costello, and the question is, was it worth the wait? Yes.

Spike was recorded without The Attractions, although two members appear on a few cuts, and boasts an impressive array of supporting musicians and collaborators including Paul McCartney, Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. It's filled with an array of styles from jazz to country to pop and rarely misses at each one.

He's always had a slanted wit in his lyrics and in "This Town" he sings, "You're nobody 'til everybody in this town thinks you're poison." A few songs have political themes like "Let Him Dangle," an anti-capitol punishment song about an actual hanging in England, and "Tramp the Dirt Down," a vicious attack on England under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The song is a slow lament in which he sings, "When England was the whore of the world / Margaret was her madam ... 'Cos when they finally put you in the ground / They'll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down."

A few songs have a hypnotic, almost jazzy feel like "God's Comic," and the instrumental "Stalin Malone." In "God's Comic," the singer is a comic who used to do a drunken priest act. He dies and finds God shaking his head over what we've done to this world. In that song God says, "I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk and wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys."

Elvis even gives a few confessional moments in the beautiful piano piece "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and "Last Boat Leaving" where he sings, "They took his pride / They took his voice" which may have been directed at his former record company, Columbia. His voice is most effective in a song co-written by his wife, Cait O'Riordan of The Pogues, "Baby Plays Around." He painfully sings, "And so it seems I've always been the last to know / To hold on to that girl, I had to let her go / I wish to God I didn't love her so / 'Cos baby plays around."

Through all the jazz, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band cuts, he still writes some perfect pop songs, especially one co-written with Paul McCartney called "Veronica," the first single from the album. He also turns in the closest thing to funk he's ever recorded called "Chewing Gum" and a beautiful but strange modern pop gem, "Satellite" about a girl, unknowingly, making a live pornographic broadcast by satellite.

Some songs wouldn't have seemed out of place on older Costello records like "Miss Macbeth" which has the sort of Sgt. Pepper's experimentation feel as 1982's Imperial Bedroom album. Another song co-written by McCartney, "Pads, Paws and Claws" has the sort of rowdy rock 'n' roll sound that was all over Costello's last record, Blood and Chocolate.

Spike is the most musically diverse album Elvis Costello has ever recorded. Maybe after 12 years of trying to break through, he's finally decided to make music on his own terms. It is hard to find even one weak track on this album. He hasn't really changed his direction, he still writes about possession and guilt, but without The Attractions and with a new record company, Warner Brothers, he seems to have found peace enough to write what he wants, not what he thinks other people want. 'The result is a collection of songs that reflect probably the most unrecognized musical genius of the '80's.

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The Stylus, March 8, 1989


Patrick Stella reviews Spike.

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1989-03-08 SUNY Brockport Stylus page 21 clipping 01.jpg
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1989-03-08 SUNY Brockport Stylus page 21.jpg
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