Thank God you can't judge an album by its cover.
The front of Elvis Costello's Spike — Elvis as a demented clown — is truly awful; you'd almost think he'd resigned himself to being a joke. The music inside, though, proves that Costello's vaunted songwriting skills are as sharp as ever; this record is fascinating from start to finish.
Musically and lyrically, Spike is a stylistic grab bag — it's not very cohesive, but then, Debbie Gibson's record is probably pretty cohesive, so who cares?
The songs are tremendous: "Let Him Dangle," for example, is a smoky, ominous cabaret number that tells a story of murder and wrongful execution. The song turns out to be infectious in spite of itself; listeners will doubtless be hooked by Costello's spooky phrasing and the wail of big-band guitars in the background. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," meanwhile, is a graceful gospel tune that manages to be profound despite lyrics that would make Bob Dylan's head spin ("A stripping puppet on a liquid stick gets into it pretty thick / A butterfly drinks a turtle's tears").
Two other tracks were co-written with Paul McCartney. It's not hard to pick them out: "Veronica," with its lilting melody and stately pop sound, is an obvious single, and the raucous chorus of "Pads, Paws and Claws" — about a femme fatale — is reminiscent of the early Beatles.
On the vehement ballad "Tramp the Dirt Down," Costello vents his bitterness toward Margaret Thatcher. "When they finally put you in the ground," he sings, "Ill stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down." Costello's anger is more finely wrought than most other artists' (Lou Reed, for example); even when he's incensed his lyrics are insinuative and perceptive. He should be careful what he wishes for, though; one wonders what the elder statesmen of British punk are going to write about when Maggie finally does kick off.
The instrumentation on Spike is wonderfully diverse, including maracas, chinese drum, sousaphone, tympani, xylophone and glockenspiel — an Oldsmobile hubcap even turns up on "Let Him Dangle." The musical complexity perfectly complements Costello's knotty lyrics.
Costello is in fine voice throughout, and the all-star backup players — including McCartney, Chrissie Hynde and T-Bone Burnett — provide admirable support. Of course, having one's famous friends play on one's album is symptomatic of the recent spate of "comeback" albums (Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson, Robbie Robertson, et al.). But Spike is saved from that distinction by the simple fact that Costello has never really been away. You heard it here first: Elvis really is alive.