Picks and Pans Review: Spike

updated 03/20/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1989 01:00AM

Elvis Costello

Hail to thee, Elvis C. Blithe spirit thou never wert. When Costello exploded on the rock scene in 1977, his wordplay was so acidic he seemed a strong candidate for early burnout. Obviously, the wellspring of creativity runs exceedingly deep in Mr. C, for here, 12 years down the road, is one of the most rewarding records of his career. One aspect that distinguishes Spike from its predecessors is the large number of well-known helpmates on hand. Until now this vitriolic visionary has been mostly a one-man show. This time there are substantial cameos from such luminaries as Paul McCartney and Chrissie Hynde. Making lengthier contributions are Mitchell Froom, Benmont Tench, members of the Water Boys and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They all help make Spike Costello's most musically varied, ambitious record. The sound ranges from the stately Irish folk of "Any King's Shilling" to the pop surrealism of "Pads, Paws and Claws." This song, with a mood recalling a fractured "March of the Tin Soldiers," owes a debt to Tom Waits's recent recordings, a similarity enhanced by the distinctive guitar playing of Waits's collaborator, Marc Ribot. Costello, meanwhile, hasn't lost his touch for feverishly creative lyrics. Even though Spike contains the un-Costello-like flourish of an instrumental, "Stalin Malone," Elvis prints on the album cover the words that this song would have if it had words, e.g., "In a room called creation, where you all obey my laws/Where Seconal is gravity and pain is like applause." "Tramp the Dirt Down" is a lyrically nasty (if melodically beautiful) ad feminam attack on Thatcherism. "God's Comic" is a richly witty look at faith and its discontents, one stanza of which posits God lolling on a water bed, listening in dismay to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem and wondering if we wouldn't be better off if he had granted custody of this planet to the apes. As always, there's a generous portion of Costello on Spike. There are 14 songs here (15 on the CD), and nary a lemon in the lot. That bitterness is just the Elvis C aftertaste. (Warner)

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