“Spike” by Elvis Costello (No. 75)

Spike features Elvis Costello’s highest-charting single, “Veronica” – co-written with and featuring Paul McCartney. That’s just the cherry on the sundae for this album, though.

Elvis Costello "Spike" album cover
Elvis Costello “Spike” album cover

Spike (“the beloved entertainer,” it says on the cover), bangs the door down with “…This Town…” It begins with a powerful drumbeat and then pulls in other instruments one by one, vocals coming in last. It’s an angry, cynical number with a catchy tune, a little spoonful of sugar for the medicine to go down.

After an explosive intro, Costello moves on to “Let Him Dangle.” This one veers between an almost dirge-like two-step shuffle, to impassioned chorus, then winds down with a heavy guitar jam.

Best lyrics since Lennon

“Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” features piano and horns, and Costello laying into a lover or a friend:

One day you’re going to have to face
A deep dark truthful mirror
And it’s going to tell you things that I still love you too much to say

Costello has a hell of a way with words, and nobody sings quite like he does.

After “Mirror,” we arrive at “Veronica.” This one, true to form for Spike is a poppy, upbeat song about… Alzheimer’s. The subject of the song is “not even sure if her name is Veronica.” Without paying close attention to the lyrics, it might sound like a love song, but instead it’s a song of loss that just has amazing music.

“God’s Comic” has a slow, jazzy beat with upright bass and what I believe is xylophone in the background. In this one, Costello ponders a conversation with the almighty and a recently deceased entertainer. “Sometimes you confuse me with Santa Claus… I might be gone for a while if you need me.”

It’s not all darkness

There are a few more lighthearted tracks on Spike. “Chewing Gum” is an upbeat romp with an almost comic interplay with percussion and horns. While the tuba plods along, there’s some jangly, angular guitar over it.

You might have heard about “Tramp the Dirt Down” following Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2013. Written in 1989, while Thatcher still “mauled” Britain, Costello wrote the scathing indictment of her government and his hope to live long enough to “stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.” Musically, it’s mostly acoustic guitar and wind instruments, with Costello’s voice up front and center. By turns angry, contemptuous, and almost defeated.

The heaviness of “Tramp the Dirt Down” is hard to follow – so Costello throws in “Stalin Malone.” This one is a jazz instrumental, heavy on horns and feels like an intermission. That’s not to say it’s inconsequential. It’s actually a song I’ve dug out to listen to on its own.

Spike is almost perfect, start to finish. It’s almost hard to reconcile this album with the new wave Elvis Costello of “Alison,” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” But, then again, Costello has always been a little quirky, and a little out of step with his peers. And with fantastic results that hold up amazingly well. More than 27 years old, Spike could have been released a week ago and been just as relevant as it was in 1989.

Guest stars

Costello’s tackling dark subjects and displaying some impressive songwriting, as well as an amazing set of musicians gathered to support him. Aside from McCartney, Spike also features contributions from Chrissie Hynde, Roger McGuinn, Nick Lowe, T Bone Burnette, and many others.

Listening to Spike it’s impossible not to be impressed by the breadth and depth of the songwriting, not to mention flawless execution. Every arrangement is tight, and serves the song perfectly. Even if, by some horrible twist of fate, a person didn’t find themselves enjoying Spike I think they’d have to acknowledge its technical excellence and quality of songs.

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