Elvis Costello has long been the Alfred Hitchcock of pop music, a chronically clever, mordant tease with a nose for the embarrassing, private stench of corruption.
His songs, like Hitchock's films, are populated by weak, lecherous men and wizened but always victimized women. His obsessive sketches of political intrigue and domination serve as allegory for sexual embattlement, and vice versa.
Spike, Costello's unwaveringly ruthless new record, proves that nothing has diluted the acid in his mouth. In fact, he may be even more vitriolic now than he was in his celebrated early days.
At this age, that makes him sound more like a crank than a punk. Indeed, his last record, Blood and Chocolate (remember the shower scene from Psycho?), showed his punkish instincts had gone a little rusty, even as they had acquired some depth.
Maybe it was the staid, rather uninspired backing of his perennial band, the Attractions.
If that was the problem, in his new album, he has taken steps to collaborate with as many different artists as could be stacked in a set of grooves. The much-touted writing partnership with Paul McCartney yields one wonderful pop song, "Veronica," and one jangly ramble, "Pads, Paws and Claws."
A more salient influence, though, is the incorporation of percussionist Michael Blair and guitarist Mark Ribot, both regular players with Tom Waits. Blair cooks through quirky, shuffling polyrhythms, while Ribot's poly-tonal guitar is beyond quirky; together they infuse a majority of the songs with a percolating edge.
That and a few horns turn a throwaway song like "Chewing Gum" into an exploding blue funk that may heat up on radio.
A third strain running here is strummy folk, both authentic Celtic and more freestyle. The album's most revealing, sardonic lyric is couched in its catching acoustic guitar hook on "God’s Comic," a dark two-step about misgivings from on high.
The song's narrator encounters the deity on a cheap motel waterbed, drinking "cola of a mystery brand,” reading an "airport novelette" and "listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Requiem'." In a punchline that is pure Costello, God sighs: "I've been sorting through all of this unbelievable junk / And wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys."
But it is with Irish folk maven Christy Moore backing him that Costello, whose given name is Declan MacManus, lets the folk aesthetic guide both his singing and his sentiment.
"Any King's Shilling," a disarminglv personal view of both sides of the Irish situation, trembles with conviction and tenderness, Costello’s nose-cold voice beautifully subdued behind a lyric of uncharacteristic wisdom.
As usual, many songs sound like churned-out, one-hand-behind-his-back kind of affairs, at least on first listen, and many of the lyrics prove that he doesn't have as many things to say as he has words to say ("Tramp the Dirt Down" and '"Miss Macbeth" being the most expendable on both counts).
But Spike, while not coherent as a whole, has the burning urge of his best work in it. As with Hitchcock, compulsion is not just one of Costello's primary themes — it's his logic of creation. And as long as he offers work of such restless force, most fans will feel compelled to listen.