Elvis the King may be dead, but the other Elvis — Elvis Costello — is alive and well and will be performing at the Smith Center on April 4. Fans do not have to wait until then to sample his new music, however.
Costello, back from a two-year hiatus, has a new album, Spike, that has all the richness and power of past recordings along with some new twists. Out are The Attractions and in is a disparate group of musicians, including Paul McCartney, Roger McQuinn, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Chrissie Hynde. Spike, produced by T-Bone Burnett, who produced Costello's King of America, blends many different forms of music.
Jazz has a prominent place in Costello's new work. "Stalin Malone" features the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on an instrumental piece. The Dirty Dozen also play in "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and "Chewing Gum."
McCartney works in his melody magic by co-writing "Pads, Paws and Claws," and the album's first single "Veronica." He also helps out on Rickenbacker bass on "...This Town..."
Though Costello's musical focus is varied, his political focus is very sharp and even nasty at times. "Tramp the Dirt Down" and "Any King's Shilling" are viciously anti-British. In "Tramp the Dirt Down" he takes aim at British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam." The most angry line from the song is "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 you down."
"...This Town..." is about Costello's dislike of the entrepreneur: "You're nobody 'till everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard," he sings.
One of the more powerful tracks, "Let Him Dangle," is about a celebrated 1952 murder trial in Britain where the wrong man hangs as punishment for a crime. On first listen one gets the idea that Costello is relishing the execution, but the message in the lyrics is strongly anti-capital punishment. The song has a hard edge to go with the message.
"Veronica" tries to capture the defiance of the elderly when their bodies have deteriorated. The song has a distinct McCartney sound that does not interfere with Costello's lyrics. It's the only possible song on Spike that would make a good single.
In "God's Comic," he examines the thoughts of a drunkard priest on his way to Heaven and his anxiety about what he has done with his life. The song has an oddly happy sound. Its folksy feel seems strange but fits in well with Costello's voice and attitude.
The second side begins with the fun jazz instrumental "Stalin Malone" and is followed by "Satellite," which looks at how satellites and the programming on television could deteriorate into an interactive peeping-tom altar. It is a forgettable song, a true yawner, that fails to grab the listener.
"Pads, Paws, and Claws," the other song written by McCartney/McManus (Costello's real name), is a lively track about a boozing womanizer who does not realize the good things he has back home. The song is very different from any other on the album. The bass and drums are very prominent and it serves as a great pick-me-up from the boring "Satellite."
"Coal Train Robberies" is about the poor of South Wales stealing coal off the cars for heat. In it, Costello takes shots at the "liberal saints" who use charity as a moral catharsis.
Spike is a good mix of the old Costello and the new Costello, seeking new challenges.