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God, as Seen by Elvis Costello : His album 'Spike' has a touch of the Almighty and a big dose of humor

March 26, 1989|CHRIS WILLMAN

Elvis Costello has never seemed much of a supernaturalist. "I know," he agrees--ever the well-grounded rationalist--"and I've not started now, have I?"

Not exactly, but this most caustic and agreeably intellectual of rock stars does have a song about the Almighty on his acclaimed new album. And if it's true that mankind tends to remake God in its own image, then it should be scant surprise that Elvis Costello's God is a little like, well, Elvis Costello. That is, a student of pop culture, cynical, hyperaware, both disgusted and amused and, of course . . . comic.

"Heaven as described in that song is a little bit like this bar--a waiting room for something," says Costello, gesturing around the West Hollywood hotel lounge. That song is "God's Comic," a fairly riotous account of a recently deceased drunken comedian's first encounter with his Maker. Costello picks up the story, embellishing it along the way:

"He's confronted with God on a big turquoise waterbed full of tropical fish. God's got like 19 TVs on there, all connected to satellite, with colorized versions of 'Dark Victory' and 'It's a Wonderful Life.' . . . He's reading books by Jackie Collins and Jeffrey Archer--and Bret Easton Ellis, he loves Bret."

God finally gets fed up with "all of this unbelievable junk," makes travel plans to go hide out at the North Pole and leaves the departing thought that maybe he "should have given the world to the monkeys." In interviews (he's given similar recountings of the song several times), Costello invariably adds the tag line: "Davy, Peter, Mickey and Michael."

You can almost hear the rim shot and cymbal crash.

Indeed, the once-and-future fiery Englishman was recently quoted in a magazine as saying that his new album, "Spike"--with its title alluding to musical funnyman Spike Jones--is "my first foray into comedy records." His tongue was wedged well into his cheek, probably more so than was Bob Dylan's when that songwriter claimed a few years back that "all my records are comedy records."

"Who said that?" Costello asks, chuckling at having been beaten to the punch. "That could well be true. I think he's very funny. Dylan was right. He's an overlooked humorist."

Costello's writing--oft-accused in the early days of harboring misogyny and even now of being unnecessarily bitter--has been taken at face value more often than not, its elegant pop formalism and sophistication throwing listeners off the trail of its puns and occasional sly self-deprecation.

Now, with "Spike"--which, for a "comedy" record, has some of his most somber and tragic songs ever--Costello outrightly presents himself as the clown. Its outrageous cover has his grinning, harlequin-like visage mounted on a wall plaque in the shape of the logo of Warner Bros., his new record label after a dozen years with Columbia.

"Well, there's humor where I can find it, as dark as it might be. If there's no light at all, you can't see anything, it's completely black. There's no such thing as completely black. Well, there is, but you wouldn't be able to take a picture of it, or you wouldn't be able to make a song out of it, I don't think. They're not all humorous like fall-on-the-floor laughing. The song 'Chewing Gum' is certainly humorous, and very sad," he noted of his story about a dissatisfied mail-order bride who plugs up her ears with gum.

"But there are some songs on this album without any redeeming humor. 'Tramp the Dirt Down' is the only one without even any apparent hope. And 'Let 'Em Dangle' doesn't have a tremendous amount of laughs in it, does it? But that one does have hope in it. It is for life, it's not against it."

There's an irony in comparing those two songs that doesn't completely escape Costello: While "Let 'Em Dangle" makes a cogent argument against capital punishment, "Tramp the Dirt Down" has Costello almost wishing someone--Margaret Thatcher, to be precise--dead.

" Definitely wishing someone dead, not almost," he corrects, laughing. "There's no reasonable argument intended there; it's an unreasonable response to very unreasonable events. . . . If you call somebody 'a madam of a whorehouse' as I do, it's a fairly cheap insult. But there are plenty of times that they patronize you and insult your intelligence. So let's trade the language; let's talk at their level."

That Dylan joker couldn't have said it better.

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