"Spike." Warner Bros. *** 1/2
Caustic sketches of schemers and losers. Portraits of dissolution and dissipation, treachery and isolation. An anti-Thatcher broadside and a scenario of video voyeurism. Murder ballads and protest songs. Jealous laments and a face-to-face with the Big Cheese Himself.
Yes, Elvis is alive. No, not that Elvis. Elvis Costello. Remember? Glasses. Used to put out like three albums a year. Couldn't shut him up. Now, after a two-year silence, the floodgates are open. "Spike" bristles with renewed invention, energy and expression.
It's all unmistakable, undiminished Elvis in its tunefulness, in its revelations of character and situation through metaphor, in its downbeat political observations and in its main musical precincts: British pop-rock, Celtic folk and cocktail/torch music. Familiar, true, but Costello restlessly advances it all into fresh territory.
His major step was hiring on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the tradition-bending New Orleans hornblowers whose sweetly sour voicings provide both avant-garde edge and evocations of a timeless rural South--sort of Otis Redding meets George Gershwin. Whether oblique funk, Band-like soul or a wild '30s cartoon big-band spook-house workout with Costello's Irish lineup, the Dirty Dozen emerge by a nose as "Spike's" predominant presence.
Costello mixes and matches other players to keep things moving. On ". . . This Town . . . ," Roger McGuinn and Paul McCartney contribute to a richly textured pop-rock tapestry, full of starburst chimes and unexpected melodic alleys. In "God's Comic," a crew that includes bassist Buell Niedlinger lays out a cocktail shuffle behind a sly, restrained vocal in this account of a decidedly strange visit with God.
Off-center rockabilly clatter propels "Pads, Paws and Claws," a sketch of a real fun couple, while the stately Irish folk of "Tramp the Dirt Down" builds to scary intensity during a long litany of shame about Thatcher's Britain. In the courtroom narrative "Let Him Dangle," an anti-execution message is set against music that snaps and sways with vengeful glee, like a trap door springing and body swinging.
The variety of the arrangements and themes encourages Costello's most versatile vocal performance yet. Whether tough, sure-footed, fast-paced deliveries or aching, underplayed confessionals, it's a commanding display. From a whisper to a scream, indeed.