On Second Thought
Elvis Costello - Spike






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

The rock and roll intelligentsia is prone to champion albums over songs, especially the-album-as-statement. The most acclaimed albums in the rock canon, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde, Astral Weeks, Exile On Main Street etc, are all thought of as the artist’s defining personal works, not necessarily their best collection of songs. While the notion that collections of songs are somehow unworthy is silly, there is something to be said for an album that is somehow connected by a theme-be it musical or lyrical. There are many great albums that aren’t tied to a theme, but Spike is not one of them. The album is a jumbled mess of self-indulgent genre-exercise.

“...This Town” prepares the listener for the best they can expect from this album- decent pop songs from an artist who can do much more. “Let Him Dangle” is a sub par anti-death penalty protest based on the Derek Bentley story. “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” is the best of the three songs featuring the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and is another pleasant enough pop song.

Costello had meet Paul McCartney at Live Aid, but made a more formal connection during the recording of Imperial Bedroom at AIR Studios, where he ran into McCartney, who was also recording. Around the time of Spike’s recording, McCartney phoned Elvis and suggested a collaboration. Their work together yielded a few B-sides for EC, a few album tracks for McCartney and two songs that appear on Spike- “Veronica” and “Pads, Paws and Claws.” These songs happen to be the two best on the album. Costello had over-arranged most of the album, but McCartney helped trim the excesses from these two songs (although the “Veronica” demo annihilates the album version). “Veronica” ended up as Costello’s biggest hit, peaking at #19 on American charts. Ironically, Elvis had just left Columbia for Warner Brothers, to escape pressure from Columbia.

The obnoxious pseudo-funk of “Chewing Gum” is followed by the pseudo-Irish folk of “Tramp The Dirt Down”, one of the most scathing anti-Thatcher songs since Costello’s own “Oliver’s Army”. The aforementioned “Pads, Paws, and Claws” sounds like a wilder version of the studio based work Costello had done with Langer and Winstanley. “Any King’s Shilling” details the life of his grandfather and is a nice lyrical companion to his grandmother’s story told in “Veronica”, but not a whole lot is going on musically. “Coal-Train Robbers” is a lame riff on Combat Rock-era Clash and “Last Boat Leaving” is a decent finale to the most uneven album of Costello’s career.030901-costello_elvis-get_happy.jpg Upon it’s release Spike was lauded as a departure from the show-offy lyrical style often attributed to Costello. But Spike is more show-offy than anything in Costello’s past. Elvis aims to impress with wild genre hopping (“Whoa, he can play zydeco AND sing a torch-song” etc...). However, this works against Costello, as the album ends up very uneven. It is apparent that he desperately needs an editor, as the album sounds like the first fifteen songs Costello dashed off. Fans in search of a solid collection of Elvis’s pop should turn to Punch The Clock , Spike is merely compilation fodder.


By: Colin Beckett
Published on: 2003-09-01
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