Elvis Costello: Spike / All This Useless Beauty

David Zahl

Elvis Costello

SpikeAll This Useless Beauty

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2001-08-21

What makes Elvis Costello's music so vital is its restlessness. For better or worse, he has continually refused to rely on formulas or reputation, constantly challenging himself and his audience. This restlessness is evident in his nearly unmatched proclivity, his acrobatic musicality, and his willingness to collaborate. Costello upholds this urgency as the boldest virtue in rock 'n' roll. But his nervy passion has not always been well-advised; Costello has the tendency to overdo it. As a result, his lyrics have often been labeled "too-clever-for-their-own-good", his music "craftsmanship". These terms seem to imply that Costello's intelligence should be counted against him.

Over the next year, Costello's catalog will be reissued by Rhino Records with the care and intelligence that it deserves. Each reissue contains two discs: the album itself and a full disc of outtakes and b-sides. Costello thankfully wrote the liner notes himself.

Now, the point of a reissue is arguably twofold: to generate revenue and to do justice to older recordings. For the listener, it is an occasion to reconsider old favorites and unearth overlooked gems. They are especially important for prolific artists, whose catalogs are vast and confusing. When Rykodisc issued Costello's early albums in the early 1990s, they were unfortunately buried in bonus tracks and odd packaging. The compilations made little sense and overwhelmed most first-time listeners. His mid-80s and 90s albums got lost in the shuffle, gradually falling out of print.

August welcomed the first wave of reissues: My Aim Is True, Spike, and All This Useless Beauty. Though plenty has been written about the former, the latter two are much less well known. Both albums are relatively recent, 1989 and 1996 respectively. Unlike his early albums, the later ones are a bit scattered; always compelling, often dark and sometimes inscrutable, they are never bland. In fact, freed from the confines of his youthful righteousness, Costello displays a maturity and depth rarely found in pop music.

Spike ended a four-year silence and, on the strength of the McCartney/Costello collaboration "Veronica", sold well. As an album, though, it lacks focus. In his liner notes, Costello admits to having five different albums in his head at the time of recording. Perhaps this accounts for the scattered nature of Spike.

It is an overly dynamic record, abruptly jumping from genre to genre. As such, it sounds less like a cohesive statement and more like a collection of highpoints. For example, Costello follows the dream-team rock of "...This Town..." -- it features Roger McGuinn on 12-string and Paul McCartney on bass -- with the politicized folk of "Let Him Dangle". Then comes the brilliant New Orleans style soul of "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror", then the sprightly pop perfection of "Veronica". "Tramp the Dirt Down", an anti-Thatcher tirade, combines Costello's remarkable gift for words with a rousing melody -- if only the production wasn't evocative of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On". The delicate Brill Building ballad "Baby Plays Around" is another highlight. Indeed, Spike has much to offer. The confusion arises in the second half of the record, where stunning tracks like "God's Comic" and "Last Boat Leaving" nearly get lost amidst the clutter of "Stalin Malone" and "Any King's Shilling". Costello's indulgences, despite their laudable diversity, teeter on excess.

All This Useless Beauty paints a clearer picture. At the time of its release in 1996, it was promoted as a collection of songs, originally written by Costello for other artists, but never performed by the author. As such, it appeared to be something less than a genuine release and was generally overlooked and under-appreciated. Yet All This Useless Beauty is the real deal, an unusually dark and personal Elvis Costello record. It is also packed with tunefulness.

As he relates in the liner notes, the album revolves around its ballads. But the slower pace does not make for a boring record. The title track and "Poor Fractured Atlas" are the beautiful laments of a disappointed soul; "Complicated Shadows" finds Costello spitting out lyrics about the awkwardness of casual cruelty; and the bouncy backdrop of "You Bowed Down" brilliantly masks the disgust in the lyric. Both "Little Atoms" and "Starting to Come to Me" veer dangerously toward literary excess, but are redeemed by imaginative performances by the Attractions. The record closes with "I Want to Vanish", a nearly classical ballad that flirts with resignation. Though some may be put off by the album's unabashed intellectualism, All This Useless Beauty is ultimately a mature, slightly pessimistic record, unburdened by the excesses of Costello's more well-known works and strengthened by timeless songs.

Early Elvis Costello albums attack the listener with words. Amphetamine-fueled or not, his voice is overloaded with passion. On his later albums, Costello's restlessness is more subtle, that is, he tempers the fast with the slow, the angry with the sad, the pessimistic with the hopeful. As a result, individual tracks stand up straighter, and the albums withstand repeated listens well. Spike and All This Useless Beauty find Elvis Costello at the height of his powers, crafting songs that are way too clever for their own good. Which, of course, is a wonderful thing.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.