With the release of Spike, Elvis Costello's new album and new persona, take a look at his recording career and consider this loose theory: Costello is the new David Bowie.
Sound off-base? Granted, their music is different (though more so with their earlier work than with later stuff). But look at the personas they've created, either on their own or with the help of others, and a parallel emerges:
Bowie was the "punk" in his earlier days, the late 1960s early 70s. He became Ziggy Stardust, the brash extraterrestrial rock star out to shock the mainstream. Through the years, he metamorphosed, becoming the Young American and the Thin White Duke, his music reflecting the changes.
In the 1980s, supposedly showing maturity, Bowie became the consummate showman dressed in crisp yellow suits, making movies and commercials and jet-setting with the uppity-ups. And his music suffered. His last album was a critical and commercial bomb and the one before that didn't fare much better.
Now for Costello. He started out on the coattails of the punk movement. He was the "shock rocker" with an attitude, a strange stage name and funny glasses (though his music was far more toned down and melodic than your average punk ensemble).
Like Bowie, Costello matured through the years. He toned down somewhat (more so his music; with Bowie, it was his look/image taking on a softer edge) and went off into forays of soulful rock and country. His biggest persona turnabout has come in the 1980s. Costello donned his birth name, Declan Patrick MacManus, for his splendid acoustic King of America disc. He became Napoleon Dynamite for his more abrasive Blood & Chocolate, and recorded a number of other tracks with musicians such as the Coward Brothers, the Emotional Toothpaste, Elvis Costello and the Attractions (his original band), and others.
Is this a convincing case? Is Costello Bowie's alter ego? Probably not, at least simply because of the difference in their music. But it's an interesting thought. There's no doubt the two are easily the most prolific and talented chameleons of popular music.
Now Costello returns with his first album in more than two years as yet another performer: Spike, "the beloved entertainer," as the record is subtitled.
Unlike Bowie's later work (except, maybe, Let's Dance), Costello's latter-day stuff — and Spike in particular — shows a wordly, still angry, intelligent and continually evolving musician.
Recorded with a virtual Who's Who of rock past and present, Spike is Costello's magnum opus.
He covers a gamut of musical styles: pop ("Veronica"), instrumental jazz ("Stalin Malone"), brash rock ("Let Him Dangle," "Coal-Train Robberies"), Irish folk balladry ("Any King's Shilling"). All with the help of the likes of Paul McCartney, Roger McGuinn and Chrissie Hynde.
The concept is all over the musical map, but the LP flows as a coherent package, totally kept together by Costello's vocals, lyrics and superb instrumentation.
Musically, the arrangements and textures of many tracks are warmer and softer than previous work. In fact, if there's a fault, there's quite a bit of somberness (no fault at all, in my opinion).
Underneath the lush music, though, a closer listen reveals that familiar Costello urgency and bite.
A case in point is "Tramp The Dirt Down," one of the most beautiful sounding songs he's recorded. But the lyrics sting of a harsh attack on Margaret Thatcher: "Oh I'll be a good boy, I'm trying so hard to behave / Because there's one thing I know, I'd like to live long enough to savor / That's when they finally put you in the ground / I'll stand on your grave -and tramp the dirt down."
In addition to that track, a number of others deal with death. "God's Comic" tells of a dead jokester: "I wish you'd known me when I was alive, I was a funny feller." And "Let Him Dangle" relates the story of the brutal hanging of a murderer.
Discontent with relationships (a sign of his own marital strife?) also surfaces. "Baby Plays Around" is self-explanatory. "Pads, Paws and Claws" puts the shoe on the other (male's) drunken foot and tells of the consequences.
Like the song styles, the instrumentation on Spike is the most varied of any one of Costello's albums. In addition to the standards, strings and horn sections are often used. Even traditional Irish folk instruments make a welcome appearance.
It all adds up to a diversified and fantastic album, yet one that's hard to peg.
But you never really could peg Elvis; as you could never peg Bowie. But whereas Bowie's stuff has grown a little tired and stale, Costello's is fresh. He craftily explores new musical, political and philosophical territory with great success.
Even more so today, 12 years into his recording career.