Saturday, October 16, 2010

Spike (1989)

Elvis Costello's final dispatch from the '80s was every bit as sad as the two that had preceded it by three years. Sadder, if that's possible. Life must have been dealing him a lot of lemons. As it happens, it was dealing me lemons as well, so I found something here that was at once intimately familiar and yet foreign and strange, seductive and off-putting too. With this set of some 15 songs, Costello, aka God's Comic, retreated so far into his Britishness that one song, an instrumental performed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band called "Stalin Malone," does not even require words. Why bother? Just cursory glances at this and other titles give hint of the agenda here: "Let Him Dangle," "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," "Tramp the Dirt Down," "Satellite," "Any King's Shilling," "Last Boat Leaving." Listen closely and you can hear the sound of a soul chilling to rigor. Play it in the background and—you can't. As temperate and considered as all the music stubbornly sounds on close examination, it's not music that will recede with any grace. It will only go away if you turn it off. Otherwise it is the glum world of God's Comic, where humiliation and cuckoldry are the order of the day and "despair" is just another word for nothing left to say. I think it's humorous that this was Costello's idea of putting his best foot forward for a new label, Warner Bros., having left Columbia. I guess the singles are there if you want to look—"Veronica," a Paul McCartney collaboration, which even made the U.S. top 20, his best ever on this side (and one of many interesting such collaborations Costello has taken on, starting approximately here in his long career, but not one of the better ones). For me, it's in for a penny in for a pound—if it's going to be dark, let's make it coal black, as on, for example, "Tramp the Dirt Down," which is about a visit he envisions to the grave of someone who has not yet died even now, 21 years later, Margaret Thatcher. He can't wait for her death to happen, you see. I know that feeling, or something like it, though mine are related more to localized political figures of the United States or others altogether than anything to do with British politics. In my mind, that's just there for the universality. After all, Costello takes nearly all of six minutes to consider the Thatcher graveside matter closely, which is perhaps above and beyond by anyone's measure of civility. Bitter, I'm trying to say. Very, very bitter.

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