The ideal rock singer/songwriter? Someone who addresses adult issues with all the passion of adolescence (than which, believe me, there is none more monomaniacal — there's no righteous indignation like a teenager's). Someone who can sing about him- or herself and strike the universal; someone who can tell a story of what the swells call "the human condition," or of some social injustice, in terms of how it affects a single life in all that life's unique details. In this case, some musical near-illiterate like "The Beloved Entertainer," as it says on the little brass nameplate under the harlequin-painted face exploding from the golden Warner Brothers shield on the cover of Spike — The Little Hands of Concrete himself.
But who is this Declan Elvis Patrick Spike Aloysius Costello MacManus, anywho? Take any Elvis Costello album (except Almost Blue and Imperial Bedroom, his worst and best), listen closely for half a dozen songs, and you'll hear a history of US/UK pop music compressed to the density of a white dwarf's core: the Beatles, Elvis I, Patsy Cline, Van Morrison, The Band, Gram Parsons, Dylan, Duane Eddy, Pet Clark, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, James Brown, the Stones, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, George Jones, the Beatles...I could go on; it's all there.
But EC's music has never been a mere collection of borrowed inflections, never smacked of pastiche or collage; these traces and influences are not so much assembled by yet another rock dilettante/poseur as they are radiated from the center of a white-hot sensibility of ferocious, omnivorous musical intelligence. And — as I proceed to destroy what little credibility is left me in the following scramble for superlatives, written in a style more or less inspired by this album's sheer density of information musical and lyrical (footnote 1) — Spike is one of the best efforts yet from that hearty mind.
EC played out his 1986 identity crisis in the media, conducting "The Elvis Costello Show" as Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (all but the penult are his actual given names) and leaving his band, the Attractions, to record the brilliant but somewhat strained and abashed The King of America with Jerry Scheff and James Burton of that other Elvis's band. Scant months later, calling himself, of all things, Elvis Costello, he released the clanging, pounding Blood & Chocolate (the best Beatles album since 1969) with the miffed but mollified Attractions. (CBS, his label at the time, was less than sympathetic about all this moniker mangling.) Then, between labels, came a long silence barely broken by the UK-only release, on Demon Records, of Out of Our Idiot by "Various Artists." (This, like Taking Liberties six or seven years before, is a catch-up, hour-long grab-bag of 17 out-takes, covers, A- and B-sides, and alternate takes, none of them released on other LPs; recommended.)
Spike, his first album for Warner Bros. and the world's first plaid CD, shows a much stronger, more coherent, less scattered EC concerting all of his considerable talents to produce a tour de force of songs that can be not only achingly intimate, but also pointedly germane in their strong social, political, and moral stances. As sharply observant of its time as Blonde On Blonde was of its, but infinitely more musical, Spike's look back at the Empty Eighties packs the outrage of what used to be called "Punk" with the acidic humor of Tom Wolfe and a punch and heartbreak all Costello's own — a neat trick, and no trick at all. But enough of these sweeping generalizations.
The CD holds 15 songs (the LP lacks "Coal-Train Robberies"), immediately setting its uncompromised tone with "...This Town...," in which EC takes on the present virtue of what was once vice — the lean, clean & mean school of barracuda business reveling in its own ruthlessness: "You're nobody 'til everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard." Check. How Costello turns garglers like "Mr. Getgood moved up to Self-Made Man Row" into musical scansion is beyond me. (By the way, that's Paul McCartney on bass, Roger McGuinn on 12-string, and Jim Keltner drumming.)
Then there's capital punishment, roasted to a golden brown in "Let Him Dangle," which recounts a story, recycled from one of Britain's last executions, in 1951, of an innocent hung for another man's crime. The title is the chorus, and EC rips into it savagely. Marc Ribot's guitar solo is worthy of George Harrison's Beatlish best. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," one of four cuts featuring the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (and, on this one, Allen Toussaint), is a classic EC lament about female duplicity with one of those mounting, climactic choruses. This is the kind of song that has earned Ol' Dec his (undeserved, I think) misogynist rep.
McCartney's bass shows up again on "Veronica," half of which he wrote. It's the lightest song here, a humorous but distant look at old age, sort of a cross between "Eleanor Rigby" and "When I'm 64," and even includes a psychedelic harpsichord. And as long as we're recycling the Beatles, you could patch a little of Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping" onto the Fab Four's patented bar-by-bar shifts between major and minor and come up with "God's Comic," a black-comic priest's-eye-view of himself dead and traveling up to that great vicarage in the sky, wondering if God can tear himself away from his pulp novel and Lloyd-Webber's Requiem long enough to remember any of the priest's jokes ("I prefer the one about my son."). Really.
To EC, the war between the sexes is always Armageddon, and, in "Chewing Gum," he sings, to a clanking, lopsided guitar chart worthy of Capt. Beefheart, about how the game is rigged from the git. One thing about a tragic sensibility — it makes for great art. "Tramp the Dirt Down" is about Margaret Thatcher ("When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam"), her war-mongering and supply-sidism. In traditional ballad style, complete with Uilleann pipes, the song is wrenchingly straightforward, impassioned, tortured, and a wee bit incoherent. But this is the crystalline incoherence of Dylan at his mid-'60s best, hothouse images and phrases coming so thick and fast, comprehensible or no, that each could be the first line of a new song. And, yes, there's more than a taste of "Masters of War" here, as Costello looks forward to the day when he can tramp down the dirt over Thatcher's grave. Describing Thatcher's publicity-conscious kiss of a child in pain: "Can you imagine all that greed and avarice coming down on that child's lips." Don't have to now, EC.
From passion to dry wit: "Satellite," EC's chilling lullaby waltz to that great unconscious global collusion, the unnatural act of telly-watching. TV as pornography — "Now they both know what it's like inside a pornographer's trousers." "Baby Plays Around" is EC at his most vulnerable, just him and an acoustic guitar (OK, there's some atmospheric organ thrown in), at his self-pitying best: poor me, while you go adultering. In fact, "A tearful lament of somebody done wrong," as he explains in the next tune, "Miss Macbeth," whose foreboding verses about some childhood voodoo queen I do not understand. (Let's face it — some of EC's patent models in his ongoing, and mostly successful, reinvention of the language of love simply don't work.)
But there's no trouble sussing "Any King's Shilling," which, in the tradition of "Arthur McBride" and a hundred other Irish ballads, begs yet another poor sod not to take the King's Shilling (payment for enlistment) and put his "silly head in that British soldier's hat." With celtic harp, bodhran, more Uilleann pipes, and references to the "potato parade," it's clear where MacManus's sympathies lie.
"Last Boat Leaving," the song of every exile to his child on the eve of furtive departure or deportation, delivers this bitter epitaph from the middle of its bridge: "You'll read my story in history books only they won't mention my name." Such mature historical sense, coupled with "King's Shilling," adds two more installments to Costello's growing cycle of war songs, which also includes "Shipbuilding," "Peace In Our Time," and "Sleep of the Just." They all share an elegiac sadness, the resistant, autumnal resignation of a Europe still battered from too many wars. This kind of expanded, historical vision makes most other singer-songwriters — especially American ones — sound one-dimensionally self-obsessed.
And all in that smoky, croony, Kahlua-on-ice voice that can sing its way into and out of more tight corners, and tear the guts out of a torch song, better than anyone else in rock today. EC is a singer's singer. Don't believe it? Listen to "Beyond Belief" on Imperial Bedroom (hell, memorize it), "Sleep of the Just" on King of America, "I Want You" on Blood & Chocolate, or "Baby Plays Around" here.
The sound? John Atkinson thinks it's harsh, but then he hasn't heard Blood & Chocolate, which is all treble hash. I think it's some of the best sound Costello's ever had, though that's not saying much — it's clear Warners went out of its way to goose up the production values. It's multi-mono all the way, of course, with too many synthesized drums, but hats off to the Warners disc-mastering team for cramming over an hour of high-energy rock of considerable dynamic range on one li'l LP with amazingly little distortion or compression. The LP is superior in every way, except for the lack of "Coal-Train Robberies."
Having gone on far too long, I'll just say that each song on Spike could be the best song on any other album released last year, or to be released this year. It's that good. Gary Krakow thinks it's the album of the year. That makes at least two of us.