Song of the Day #259: ‘God’s Comic’ – Elvis Costello

spikeFollowing the double dip in 1986, Costello waited three years to put out his next album. During that time he signed with Warner Brothers and, as he tells it in the liner notes of Spike, was given a boatload of cash to make his next album. As a result, Costello writes, he took the five potential albums swimming around in his head and put them all out as one.

Indeed, Spike suffers a bit from schizophrenia. Though it is no longer than Get Happy!, Imperial Bedroom or King of America, it lacks those records’ thematic and musical cohesion and as a result feels about twice as lengthy as it is.

Protest ballads (‘Let Him Dangle,’ ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’) run up against art rock experiments (‘Miss Macbeth,’ ‘Chewing Gum’) and Costello’s biggest hit to date (the Paul McCartney collaboration ‘Veronica’) shares space with his most avant garde compositions.

I mentioned that King of America was my introduction to Elvis Costello. Well, Spike holds its own distinction, as the first Costello album I bought upon its release — the first one that was new to every other Elvis fan the same time it was new to me. Apart from its own merits, it’s always held a special place with me for that reason.

Spike also contains at least two songs I count among the very best Costello has written. The first is ‘Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,’ a bluesy, piano and horns ballad about coming to terms with your shortcomings (“One day you’re gonna have to face a deep, dark truthful mirror, and it’s gonna tell you things that I still love you too much to say” – ouch). The second is ‘God’s Comic.’

I think this is the first song that really drove home to me what a special songwriter Costello is. Yes, I’d heard much of his work by the time I got Spike, including some of his very best songs, but something about this composition just stood out to me. Perhaps it was the seamless blend of witty and withering commentary. Perhaps how the off-kilter shuffle of the music complements the fantastic imagery.

This is a theological satire worthy of Randy Newman, featuring a disinterested deity who, bored of the “unbelievable junk” produced by mankind, has turned his back on our suffering. He disappears as we “lie in the dark, afraid to breathe and [we] beg and [we] promise and [we] bargain and [we] plead.” Again, ouch.

One negative about Costello signing with Warner Brothers is that almost his entire catalog from Spike on is routinely scrubbed from YouTube. So it will be pretty much live versions from here on out. This one is a splendid BBC1 performance that loses some of the ornate instrumentation of Spike but makes up for it in Costello’s powerful delivery.

I wish you’d known me when I was alive, I was a funny feller
The crowd would hoot and holler for more
I wore a drunk’s red nose for applause
Oh yes I was a comical priest
“With a joke for the flock and a hand up your fleece”
Drooling the drink and the lipstick and greasepaint
Down the cardboard front of my dirty dog-collar

Now I’m dead, now I’m dead, now I’m dead, now I’m dead
And I’m going on to meet my reward
I was scared, I was scared, I was scared, I was scared
You might of never heard God’s Comic

So there he was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette, listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Requiem”
He said, before it had really begun, “I prefer the one about my son”
“I’ve been wading through all of this unbelievable junk
and wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys”

Now I’m dead, now I’m dead, now I’m dead, now I’m dead
And you’re all going on to meet your reward
Are you scared? Are you scared? Are you scared? Are you scared?
You might of never heard God’s Comic

I’m going to take a little trip down Paradise’s endless shores
They say that travel broadens the mind
Till you can’t get your head out of doors

I’m sitting here on the top of the world
I hang around in the darkest night
Until each beast has gone to bed and then I say
“God bless” and put out the light
While you lie in the dark, afraid to breathe and
you beg and you promise
And you bargain and you plead
Sometimes you confuse me with Santa Claus
It’s the big white beard I suppose
I’m going up to the pole where you folks die of cold
I might be gone for a while if you need me

Now I’m dead, now I’m dead, now I’m dead, now I’m dead
And you’re all going on to meet your reward
Are you scared? Are you scared? Are you scared? Are you scared?
You might have never heard, but God’s comic

3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #259: ‘God’s Comic’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Dana says:

    Well, once again, I made a comment early this morning that somehow didn’t post. Fortunately, it was a relatively short comment (for me) because we had to catch a plane to the Big Easy.

    What I said, however, was that, while I understood Clay’ comment that Spike lacks the cohesiveness of concept found in IB and KOA, I still think it’s one of Costello’s best album. Indeed, I would probably rank it my 3rd favorite after IB and KOA. Now, perhaps that is in part because, like Clay, this was the first new record to come out from Elvis after I had been indoctrinated in Cambridge, so, in a way, it was my entry point and holds a special place for that reason.

    After seeing today’s post this morning, I decided to listen to the entire Spike album on the plane. It was pure joy, and only reconfirmed my high ranking of thi record. In many ways, Spike offers a blend of the smoother sound of IB with the acoutics of KOA, but then goes beyond both of these styles, venturing into jazz, blues, even Celtic influences. There really isn’t a weak song in the bunch, although if I had to pick a few I might go with Satellite and Coal Train Robbery, but, hell, I really love those too.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Veronica proved to be Elvis’ biggest commercial song, as it contains the melodic contribution of McCartney’ sensibility. Even more facinating is McCartney’s influence on the rock-a-billy Pads, Paws and Claws. McCartney’s collaberation on the opening track, This Town, is also quite wonderful.

    As for today’s song, it is just plain great. Yes, the ironic verses rival any Randy Newman song, but I also hear influences of Dylan in Costello’s words. It was rather humorous to hear the lines, “they say that travel broadens the mind, till you can’t get your head out of doors” as I sat on the plane going to NOLA. Fortunately, I am still able to get my head out of doors….though my belly might be a different matter:)

  2. Clay says:

    It’s been awhile since I tried to rank Costello’s albums but I think I might put Spike in the top five. While I love many of the albums he’s put out since this one (especially Brutal Youth, All This Useless Beauty, The Delivery Man, When I Was Cruel and Momofuku) there is a level of ambition in this one that gives it a leg up.

  3. Amy says:

    To add to the chorus, this was the first album I got to hear along with the rest of the Costello universe. It was wonderful to be able to form opinions about the songs at the same time as my “drug” dealing boyfriend. “Chewing Gum” was my early favorite. I felt I’d never heard anything like it before, and I couldn’t get enough. The starts and stops of the music (which I have no idea how to technically describe) absolutely entranced me. LOVED IT. There were many others I loved on the album, as well, which was a good thing because I can’t imagine if my first independent experience with Costello had been negative. Perhaps Dana and I would have never married 😉

    Anyway, today’s song is one of the best. This album, perhaps more than any of his others, represents what I love about the way the music and the lyrics work independently of one another (you could listen to the music without any lyrics and love it just as much), yet brilliantly complement one another. This would definitely be my #3, but I’m not nearly as familiar with the rest of his albums as you are.

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