Spike is either Elvis Costello’s most ambitiously experimental or self-conscious and overindulgent album. Released in 1989 as the musician’s Warner Bros. debut – the start of a relationship that would eventually become as contentious and vengeful as one of Costello’s songs – the album received a lukewarm critical reception, as numerous critics blasted its musical excesses and alleged lack of lyrical focus and direction. Although he never explicitly agreed with such critiques, even Costello has subsequently acknowledged the record’s eccentricities, commenting in the liner notes of the 2001 Rhino reissue that he had the blueprints for five albums in his head and apparently decided to make all of them at once.
If the album still sounds occasionally bloated and over-saturated with instrumentation, the demo versions included in that Rhino reissue offer a fascinating contrast in how Spike’s songs are structured and how such embellishments can alter a listener’s perceptions of the songs. Eleven of Spike’s 15 tracks are presented in demo form, with “Any King’s Shilling” being the only notable exclusion. Stripped of the various studio enhancements that still remain the album’s most recognizable characteristic, these demos showcase Costello in a solo setting, with only a guitar, occasional keyboards and backing vocals used to flesh out the songs.
The superficial difference is of course obvious: the demos are rougher and – perhaps most importantly – more organic than their crafted and polished album counterparts. Less apparent is how the demo versions transform both the listener’s expectations and the album’s personality; whereas the official version places an emphasis on the songs’ elaborate arrangements and production techniques, the stripped-down demo versions instead force the listener to focus on Costello’s lyrics. Indeed, many contemporary reviewers, struggling to figure out just what the hell was going on musically in these songs, only gave cursory mention of the songs’ content. Several of the demo versions can be described as social or topical songs, while many others examine the type of sentimental and sordid topics that have appeared in Costello’s work for decades, with the contrasting aspects of devotion and infidelity appearing in nearly equal parts.
Though some of Spike’s politically-themed songs might have been lost on American audiences – the story that forms the basis of the thinly-veiled anti-capital punishment screed “Let Him Dangle” still isn’t exactly well known across the ocean, while “Coal-Train Robberies” is limited by a specific geography – the album contains Costello’s angriest and most accessible “protest” song. Costello had a working draft of the anti-Thatcher song “Tramp the Dirt Down” since at least 1985, performing an early incarnation of it at that year’s Miner’s Benefit, before finally committing it to Spike. If the album version is notable for its fury and anger, the demo actually goes further: Costello spits the lyrics out with disgust and rage, a single guitar framing his vocals and no extraneous instrumentation to distract listeners from the song’s confrontational tone and razor-sharp lyrical barbs.
Most of the other demos are far more introspective. A sense of the past and familial commitment frames a pair of songs that find Costello at his most affectionate, even if the darkness and tragedy of these songs is impossible to ignore. Free of any excessive layers of instrumentation, images of devotion and attachment can be found throughout “Veronica” (written about Costello’s grandmother and her declining mental health) and “Last Boat Leaving” (also inspired by Costello’s family history). Costello’s vocals make the latter song far more ominous than its Spike counterpart: the narrator forebodingly tells his son that he’ll “ever reach the shore” and will likely be forgotten: “When you go to school, son, you’ll read my story in history books/ Only they won’t mention my name.”
Other tracks are far less devotional and the characters much less dignified. Like any good Costello album there’s a fair amount of filth and sleaze here, and the famous Costello sneer remains on full display throughout the demos. “…This Town…” presents the stories of a slimy piano player who hits the keys like he was “pawing a dirty book” and a woman who trades blow jobs for stock. The peep show tragi-comedy “Satellite” features a cheating couple whom Costello presents with a mixture of derision and sympathy. It’s obvious early on that the affair is fleeting: both conspirators – the intoxicated female for whom “Champagne rolls off her tongue like a second language” and her admirer who undresses her in his mind – are clearly amateurs at such games of deception. By the time the mess has ended, the most the pair can salvage is that “Now they both know what it’s like/ Inside a pornographer’s trousers.” Whereas the album version moves with almost a grand orchestral feel to it, the demo’s minimal instrumentation and Costello’s vocal delivery fit the subject matter and tone better.
Costello knows full well there are at least two sides to any tale when relationships are involved – a separate article could be written about “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” the album’s most complex and nuanced song – and Spike addresses these various sides with both compassion and cynicism. Certainly it’s a tough sell arguing that a set of imperfect and informal demos with little instrumentation surpasses a finished product that contains contributions from Mark Ribot, T-Bone Burnett, Michael Blair and Allen Toussaint, among others, but in the case of Spike, that is exactly the case. The original album’s strengths and flaws are both inextricably linked, as the album’s unconventional styles and arrangements make the songs frequently cluttered and impenetrable, with some of Costello’s most pointed, biting and humorous songwriting overlooked as a result. In retrospect the demos hold up much better than their polished album counterparts: their simplicity and sparseness are what make them so fascinating and far superior to the actual album in many respects.