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on 20 October 2014
When you know the circumstances of Spike's creation it is a lot easier to understand why this hour-plus album is such a diffuse sprawl. Costello's first new album after an uncharacteristically long two-year layoff, his first album for a new label, this 1989 Warner Bros LP was recorded in Hollywood, New Orleans, Dublin, and London, and was created with the aid of a distinguished, and eclectic, list of musicians that included: the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; T Bone Burnett; Paul McCartney; Chrissie Hynde; Allen Toussaint; Roger McGuinn; Tom Waits' guitarist Marc Ribot, and some of Ireland's finest traditional musicians players including Christy Moore. Given those set of circumstances, it is also unsurprising that the results of that adventurousness are variable. His hit single 'Veronica' - a co-write with McCartney -, the storming, swearing opener 'This Town', fiery, and folky, anti-Thatcher lament 'Tramp The Dirt Down', and an odd standalone - the finger-clicking, jazz-y instrumental 'Stalin Malone' - are amongst the very best things in his voluminous back catalogue.
But Costello - who mockingly bills himself as "The Beloved Entertainer" on the garish tartan check sleeve - struggles to maintain that level of performance across the piece. As Barney Hoskyns has suggested many of songs were "too artful by half, with knotty arrangements that belied an absence of memorable music". His point is proven by 'Let Him Dangle', the cumbersomely-arranged, but well-intentioned, polemic against capital punishment, and the fragmentary 'God's Comic', which has little else to recommend itself other than the delivery of a cracking punchline, when Costello imagines The Big Man passing judgement on Jesus Christ Superstar composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem. Elsewhere, 'Pads, Paws And Claws' - his other effort with the ex-Beatle - is a meandering rockabilly tune overburdened by laboured puns, and the incongruous 'Chewing Gum' is a self-indulgent stab at funk that is too heavy for Costello's reedy vocals.
Less focussed than his two 1986 albums - the critically-acclaimed King Of America: The Costello Show and the often overlooked Blood And Chocolate - Spike is highly unlikely to change the opinions of the unconverted towards him, but it shows he still had his moments, even if interest in his work had steadily declined as the 1980s had progressed.