With the recent release of Elvis Costello's new album, Spike (Warner Bros.), the critics are already hailing it as his greatest in a list of 14 LPs that have spanned the past 12 years.
The record buying public, however, is a bit wary considering what Costello has released in recent years. For those who are looking for a collection of angry rockers like his My Aim is True or This Year's Model albums, or twenty dancable ditties like Get Happy, they won't find it in Spike.
First, let's look at what Costello has recorded in the past five years. Aside from last year's compilation album, Out of Our Idiot, it has been two years since Elvis went into the studio. When he came out he brought with him Blood and Chocolate, an album which reunited him with The Attractions and recreated the raw sound of his earlier records. Despite this, the album saw meager sales and received little or no airplay.
In 1986, Costello paired up with T-Bone Burnett and various studio and country musicians to record King of America, which, like most of his records, received overwhelming critical acclaim and sold about a dozen copies. Fans are already drawing parallels between this album and Spike, in which The Attractions are noticeably absent.
When Costello released Goodbye Cruel World in 1984, the critics and his fans wished he had meant it. Elvis himself admitted that this was a bad album. The critics agreed: it's a loser.
His previous LP, Punch the Clock, wasn't much better, but it was much more popular having spawned Elvis' biggest single, "Everyday I Write the Book."
Those who were turned off by the apparently erratic offerings of Costello's past five albums will find it hard to like Spike.
What Spike offers is some of Elvis' best work performed with the freedom of having hand-picked musicians for each track, and without the pressure of having to produce a hit single. The threads that hold this diverse offering together are Elvis' powerful voice and unique songwriting.
Elvis is once again united with T-Bone Burnett and a host of other musicians including: Paul McCartney, former Byrd Roger McGuinn, Elvis' wife and Pogue member Cait O'Riordan, Allen Toussaint, Chrissie Hynde, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and studio musicians Jerry Marotta and Jim Keltner.
Spike debuts the first sampling of the much publicized collaboration with Paul McCartney, including "Pads, Paws and Claws" and the first single, "Veronica," a catchy, upbeat pop song that is not at all indicative of the rest of the album. More from that collaboration is expected to appear on McCartney's forthcoming LP.
Unlike McCartney, who tends to sing about such homey and pastoral subjects as his wife, his children and his farm in Scotland, Costello laments about lost love in "Baby Plays Around," offers scathing commentary on Anglo-lrish relations in "Any King's Shilling," and cynically mourns the imminent death of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "Tramp the Dirt Down."
It's not all doom and gloom though in Spike. In "God's Comic," Costello uses his witty cynicism to create a hysterical image of God on a waterbed "drinking a cola of a mystery brand, reading an airport novelette, listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's 'Requiem'."
Musically, this is Costello's most diverse album. Traditional Irish folk instruments mesh with New Orleans-style horns to create sounds never before heard on a pop album. It's an album chock full of international instruments: Spanish guitar, Indian harmonium, Chinese cymbal, lung maracas, glockenspiel, Sousaphone and even an Oldsmobile hubcap.
Costello has effectively used the Sousaphone in place of the electric bass guitar on several tracks. One such song, "Stalin Malone," an instrumental with lyrics (included on the album sleeve), is a jazzy vehicle for the antics of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band accompanied by drums alone.
What does all this mean? It means that for hard-core Costello fans who believe, as his debut album cover states, the Elvis really is King, this is the album they've been waiting for. However, those who like "Allison," "Pump it Up," "Everyday I Write the Book" and little else, should save their money or open their minds.
Whether you are a hard-core fan or just a fair-weather friend, buy the album. Better yet, but the CD; it has an extra song on it.
Note: Elvis Costello begins his North American tour on April 1. Look for him to play college campuses in the area.