Elvis Costello
(Rhino 74286)

Everyone is wrong about Spike, and about Elvis Costello in general. Costello included. Every time I see him described as "angry" or hear some aging pop nerd in tight denim going on about how My Aim is True is such a masterpiece, I just have to shake my head. "Why don't they get it?" I think to myself in anguish. "Can't they see it's all about Spike?"

I'm glad I wasn't born 10 years earlier, because I can feel free to toss new-wave babies out with whatever bathwater I choose. And so I say: forget all that "angry young man" shit, what you want is SONGS. And songs is what Spike's got. It's Elvis Costello's real tightwire act. No song sounds like another, but they all fit together like a coat of many colors.

Those early albums? Yeah, great, don't worry, I'm not just tipping sacred cows for the drunken hell of it. But truly – listen to them instead of thinking about them! You'll notice, at last, that they all pretty much sound the same. Lots of shouting and Elvis trying to cram 100 syllables into every measure. BRILLIANT songs here and there, but a WHOLE lot of sprawl. I just want him to RELAX already.

And so on Spike, he relaxes, puts down the Thesaurus, stops thinking about his record collection, and just makes a fucking great album. His best album. A true piece of art. Those don't come around often, you know.

And still, everyone continues to cling to their Creem magazines and insists on the "early albums." And so the mythos gets passed down to a new generation of hipsters who seem to equate easy-accessibility and sonic consistency with greatness. Greatness? It's about ambition, risk, and unbending faith in a personal vision. Spike goes out on a limb, bending, bending, bending, and springing forth to fly.

"But it doesn't have The Attractions!!!?!" you cry. Well you know what, the Attractions were a restraining bolt. On Spike, Elvis Costello finally finds the perfect synthesis for his diverse, contradictory, omnivorous, and multidirectional musical interests and talents.

Which is not to say it's a perfect album – it's too long, and the last few songs feel like a series of encores at a concert when you really have to pee. Though no song is inferior here, I'd still kill "Chewing Gum," "Any King's Shilling," and "Last Boat Leaving" simply in the interest of being concise. All the better to appreciate the grandeur that abounds.

Stunning songs: "Veronica" (written with McCartney), "God's Comic" (funniest song he's ever penned), "Tramp the Dirt Down" (vicious, true, honest), "Baby Plays Around" (though it does rip off "Nobody Does it Better"), "Satellite" (Chrissie Hynde sparkles and shines on background vox), "Let Him Dangle" (passionate, perfect), "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" (arguably his best lyrics ever).

Second-tier tracks here would crown most other albums: "This Town," "Pads, Paws & Claws," "Miss Macbeth." Even the gratuitous experimentation of "Chewing Gum" and "Stalin Malone" works. It's all so open-minded. It's like everything is possible through music.

Can you say that about your pet Elvis Costello album???

How I love Spike. How I want the world to love Spike. It's the album that keeps me buying other Elvis Costello albums, because I see yet another one that looks awful, and a voice in my head invariably counters: "But he made Spike!"

Too bad it's the exception rather than the rule. Maybe Costello needed Margaret Thatcher for fuel, as Batman needs The Joker, or the Olsen Twins™ need malls. And maybe why I like Ron Sexsmith so much is that he keeps making Spike-style records.

Rhino's two-disc expanded edition adds demos for virtually all the songs, plus outtakes and b-sides, including a fine, weird reading of John Sebastian's "The Room Nobody Lives In." How I wish the world would celebrate John Sebastian. Oh sweet Moesha, how many burdens must I bear?

Review by Brad Benchmörk