Let’s discuss Spike by Elvis Costello, another curious album in a formidable catalog which is experiencing its 30th anniversary. By 1989, Costello was understandably listing a bit beneath the weight of his own legend. In his twelve-year recording career EC had rendered classic songs at an astonishing rate, rivaling the Beatles, Dylan and Holland-Dozier-Holland for sheer volume and excellence. Following a seemingly endless series of critical hits and relative commercial disappointments, his long-standing contract with Columbia Records had expired and he had moved on to Warner Brothers, where he hoped to resuscitate his erstwhile career as a hit-maker as well as a genius-auteur. At only 35, his trajectory had taken him through many iterations: folky, Randy Newman-obsessed pub rocker, speed-addled literary punk, spindly-legged New Wave icon, chamber music pop savant and Americana-besotted English cowboy poet. Now, on Spike, he was about to become all of those things at once, on a sprawling record as intermittently compelling as it is unwieldy and under-edited.
The album’s artwork makes for an unsubtle suggestion of Costello’s mindset at this juncture, picturing his leering, decapitated head painted in jester’s make-up and mounted on a wall plaque. Beneath it reads the rueful description: “The Beloved Entertainer”. The unsubtle message of an artist stalked and hunted and made into a trivial and horrific prize is an apt visual analog for the ensuing deluge of dyspeptic spleen-venting. The production, credited to Kevin Killen, T-Bone Burnett and Costello himself is tinny and peculiar and anxious. Synths ring out discordantly. guitars squall and a slightly nerve-jangling high-end persists through many of the tracks. It doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of beautiful, but it suits the uneasy mood.
Costello imagined Spike as a new professional beginning and the results are mixed but intriguing. Let’s take a track-by-track look:
All clattering drums, stabbing keys and random character assassinations, this is an amusing opener which makes clear the tenor of Costello’s nasty mood. His reportage on seeing a scene peer perform live goes as such: “It was a song with a topical verse/ which I’m afraid he then proceeded to sing.” His own self-assessment as a polarizing curmudgeon hits even closer to the bone: “You’re nobody till everybody in this town/ Thinks you’re poison/ Got your number/ knows it must be avoided”. And in a chorus millions would not thrill to sing along to: “You’re nobody until everybody in this town thinks you’re a bastard.” Amazing he isn’t from DC. I love this song.
Let ‘Em Dangle
Much as Dylan re-engaged with direct protest music in the middle portion of his career with ‘”Hurricane” and “George Jackson”, this formidable slice of social-realist agitprop finds EC at his most explicitly political since Punch The Clock’s “Shipbuilding” and “Pills & Soap”. An impressively forensic narrative account of the 1953 hanging of a mentally incapacitated criminal, it renders its case persuasively and lays bare the multi-faceted tragedy of choosing revenge over forgiveness, with all the reverberations that ensue.
Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
An excellent Costello-song with a few dodgy verses (“A butterfly drinks a turtle’s tears”?), it begins with the insoluble proposition: “One day your going to have to face/ the deep dark truthful mirror/ and it’s going to tell you things that/ I still love you too much to say.” Cathartically soulful, joyously abetted by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, it reads like a particularly intense update of the Van Morrison classic His Band And Street Choir by way of three decades of failed psycho-analysis. A longtime concert fixture and for good reason.
Costello wanted a genuine hit single on his new album, and “Veronica” did the trick, breaking into the US Billboard Top 20 and charting higher still at on the Album and Modern Rock Charts. And no fluke either: it’s a great song with an indelible descending chorus and a deceptively melancholy depiction of a geriatric woman struggling to hold on to the fading memories of her joyful past. Not exactly “Paradise City” in terms of youth culture outreach. This was another of Costello’s successful writing collaborations with Paul McCartney, whose own “Eleanor Rigby” casts a long shadow as do the arch but moving character studies of Ray Davies. Given their individual status as icons it’s understandable that the Costello-McCartney writing partnership lasted only a brief time, but songs like this one and “My Brave Face” from McCartney’s Flowers In The Dirt suggest these two could have made an awful lot of great music together.
A strange and rather singular piece of musical-theater pastiche, this darkly amusing tale couples existential dread with wry cultural critique, and is undoubtedly the most cheerful song ever to contain the chorus: “Now I’m dead/ now I’m dead/ now I’m dead/ now I’m dead!” For five and half shaggy-dog minutes the tune drolly follows the escapades of the titular God’s Comic as he draws his last breath and ascends to amuse his maker. Elements of calypso and Dixieland jazz wander in and out. Someone’s playing xylophone. This absolutely should not work, and yet it does and wonderfully, and that’s why he’s the genius and we’re us.
Spike is off to an exceedingly strong start through five tracks – we might even be talking classic. Then we get to “Chewing Gum”. It’s not clear what this is supposed to be: a mid-tempo take on the contemporary R&B of the era? A cleaned up stab at PiL-style “Death Disco”? Or just a long lyric sheet song over a meandering jam session? Whatever the intention it fails to cohere into anything memorable. As Costello’s career progresses, these sort of half-formed excursions into genre tourism occur with greater frequency and more diminishing returns. One senses there might be an excellent song buried somewhere between the slap-bass and discordant horn charts, but he hasn’t bothered to find it in this instance, and this would have been better left as a mild curiosity and an outtake.
Tramp The Dirt Down
One of the angriest songs in the entire Costello catalog (which is sort of like saying one of the angriest bees in a shaken-up sack) this slow-burning anti-Thatcher protest number weds its malevolent, no-prisoners-taken lyric to a traditional Irish melody. Where “Shipbuilding” was a dexterous story-song whose anti-Colonial agenda was rendered with a decorous light touch, ”Tramp The Dirt Down” has no time for such subtleties. “When England was the whore of the world/ Margaret was her madam” goes one representative couplet, all of them leading to the desire to live long enough to stomp on the former PM’s grave. Costello deserves credit for his passion here – one imagines Phil Ochs in heaven saying “Dude, you gotta calm down!” – but I’ve never thought it amounted to a great song. Much like “Masters Of War”, the rage feels earned but the net effect is heavy-handed in the extreme. I can be persuaded otherwise and would be interested to hear others’ perspectives.
A curious instrumental foray into jazz fusion with a title that seems like it was auto-generated from Costello Mad Libs. The melody is neither fetching enough nor the arrangements or playing sufficiently inspired to justify its four plus minute run-time. I appreciate that EC is a musical polymath and his sundry dives into jazz have yielded satisfying results from the Chet Baker-inspired track “Almost Blue” to the hybrid horns-and-chamber-music Bacharach-collaboration Painted From Memory to his own cocktail piano mood piece North. This just feels like something he stuck on a record to fill time, or show off, or both.
A handsome deep-catalog ballad of the sort that Costello pulls of so regularly that it can become much too easy to take for granted. A cousin to Imperial Bedroom character studies like “Kid About It” and “You Little Fool” as well as a worthy companion piece to Lou Reed’s “Satellite Of Love”, this is a three-act romance in an efficient-feeling 5:44, which makes far better use of his trad-jazz leanings than the previous track. Lots of fine lyrics with this zinger being a particular favorite: “In the hot unloving spotlight, with secrets it arouses/ Now they both know what it’s like inside a pornographer’s trousers”. Strong song.
Pads, Paws & Claws
This is a fun, lightweight, bluesy romp through degenerate nightlife, albeit of the sort he did better and more persuasively on the King Of America tracks “Lovable” and “The Big Light”. It is a curse of Costello’s genius that it seems like he could turn this kind of thing out like addressing a letter. Not a bad song, but one we’ve heard better versions of.
Baby Plays Around
At some point – and I think this is important – Costello got the idea that he was a great, golden-throated crooner, of the Bing Crosby or Sarah Vaughn variety. As a person with a profound admiration for his vocal tone and peerless phrasing, I’m not sure why this idea took root and was allowed to metastasize. This is a lovely piece of subtle writing from the perspective of a cuckolded-spouse, which Elvis proceeds to absolutely murder by dint of a few shrieky forays into the outer limits of his vocal range. There are times as his career has progressed that it can almost seem like he is attempting to replace the aggression of his punk roots with a full-on assault on singing. I wish someone (T-Bone??) would remind him how his hero Rick Danko handled “It Makes No Difference” and suggest he do likewise.
As with Blood & Chocolate’s “Tokyo Storm Warning”, this is an impressive piece of writing that forgets to be actually enjoyable. Kitchen-sink production and a clunky arrangement set the backdrop for this nightmare character study of a truly wicked woman (Thatcher again, one assumes). There are a number of intriguing lyrics as always, my favorite being: “Into a puzzle where petrol will be poisoned by rain/ Miss Macbeth saw her reflection/ As confetti bled its colors down the drain”. Ultimately it scans as both overly-long and strangely unfinished. Would have been better served being taken back to the drawing board or left as an outtake.
Any King’s Shilling
A well-rendered ballad on an album which features a couple too many, this is a pacifist’s call to refuse military service, reminiscent in theme and execution to the great Richard Thompson meditation “Beat The Retreat”. The violin even gives it a Mekons feel. At a luxurious six minutes it probably should have been the album closer.
Coal Train Robberies
A very good song, sequenced very curiously in the pen-ultimate spot of a fifteen track record which should almost definitely have been 11 or 12. But this is a catchy bit of noir-rock whose insistent chorus and verge-of-apocalypse lyrics make it something of a sped-up sequel to Dylan’s “Foot Of Pride”. I’m particularly partial to: “So many good deeds/ so little time/ say the advertising agency swine”.
Last Boat Leaving
Part of the revelatory fun of the 90’s-era Ryko reissues of Costello’s records in expanded editions was the sheer welter of great to interesting outtakes that were included in the various packages. Part of the excitement that came in seeing great songs like “Big Tears” and “Stranger In The House” relegated to outtake status was the realization of both Costello’s otherworldly prolificness and his talent as a rigorous and insightful editor of his own work. On Spike, that begins to change. This is a fine and thematically rational set-closer but it comes after several similar mid-tempo numbers and struggles to distinguish itself from its side two predecessors. It might well feel more memorable in a different context.
Ultimately, Spike served its intended purpose of repositioning Costello as a commercially viable hit-maker, at least in the immediate term. “Veronica” introduced him to a new generation of record buyers, and the album sold briskly. Thirty years on, it remains unwieldy – bursting with inspiration and yet seemingly untethered from the intense discipline that made his early classics astonishing examples of literary economy.
In some ways this was the end of the first phase of Costello’s career and an indication of the artist as we would need to grow to love him. There was much great music to made in his future, but the experience would be more diffuse and rambling. Brief jolts of raucous energy found on records like Brutal Youth and When I Was Cruel were quickly ameliorated by often trying and occasionally wonderful forays into country, jazz and classical. He was his own man and happy to chase his muse down any rabbit hole it might lead him. I’ve been down a number of those rabbit holes with him and am grateful for the experience, but if I’m being completely candid, I miss the days of EC Mach One. You could argue that the first side of Spike is the last time we ever saw that guy.