Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Revisit: Elvis Costello - Mighty Like a Rose

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Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Among Elvis Costello's fans and critics, Mighty Like a Rose is frequently considered one of the musician's lesser works, not quite as awful as Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock but nowhere near his "supposedly irreproachable" late 1970s records, as Costello sarcastically remarked in the liner notes to Rose's Rhino reissue. In some ways this degraded standing is understandable, as the album contains several slight songs and a few others that are oddities at best. Contemporary reviews of Mighty Like a Rose were not favorable. Robert Christgau said that "...the good songs are overblown tragedies, the bad ones overblown trifles." Oddly enough, Christgau loved "Playboy to a Man" but hated "The Other Side of Summer." And there's your Dean of American Rock Critics for you. The New Musical Express complained that the albums was "willfully obscure and directionless...the music for the most part is self indulgent and sour, or lazy and glutinously sweet." Even Rolling Stone - by 1991 handing out inflated ratings at breakneck pace - panned the album: "vanished without a trace" is how that rag would later summarily dismiss the album in its Costello overview. As Costello toured in support of the album, many other myopic reviewers fixated on his heavily bearded face, exhibiting all the hallmarks of superficial and disposable rock journalism. Little wonder the album traditionally ranks very low in the Costello discography.

Yet time sometimes has a way of changing how we perceive an album and its place in an artist's canon. Mighty Like a Rose is a good example: the album's arrangements recall Costello's past work but also, and perhaps more interestingly for those who can't get past its weaker moments, hint at what the musician would attempt with varying degrees of success on his later 1990s albums. With their unconventional, swollen arrangements and use of instruments like "beaten things," "big stupid guitar," "industrial jack-ass" and "little foolish organ," songs like "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" and "Invasion Hit Parade" now sound like a natural, if less cumbersome, progression from the experimentalism of Spike tracks like "This Town..." and "Miss Macbeth." The influence that classical music and orchestral-worthy ballads would exert on The Juliet Letters, GBH and All This Useless Beauty is hinted at in the keyboard melody of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" as well as the horns that dominate "Harpies Bizarre."

Despite the occasional bout of verbosity and the type of cutesy wordplay that detractors can't quite stomach, the album features some of Costello's best lyrics. Its lyrical tone is predominantly one of disgusted anger, with the singer painting an oppressively cynical view of the world. The Beach Boys send-up that Christgau loathed so much - "The Other Side of Summer" - is remarkably jaded, with its key images of the "Pop princess...Downtown shooting up" and the "Cardboard city and the unwanted birthday" standing in stark contrast to the song's candy-pop arrangement. Costello even throws in a thinly-veiled shot at John Lennon's hallowed "Imagine" for good measure. Similar in tone though far different in execution, the following songs - "Doomsday" and "How to Be Dumb" - continue Costello's ranting. "Doomsday" welcomes the end of the world amid assorted riff-raff worthy of James Ensor, with its jealous husband and the wife who "sleeps in the shirt of a late great country singer," parents cashing in on their child's "abduction" and, eh, a possible reference to Sting. "How to Be Dumb" is likewise laced with as much venom as anything from the musician's 1970s albums. Who cares if some of its shots are cheap and the song occasionally sounds like a harangue, commonly thought to be lobbed in the direction of Attractions bassist and Big Wheel pseudo-philosopher Bruce Thomas? The song still sounds like a vindictive and well-placed thumb to the eye.

No Elvis Costello album is complete without a few sordid love tales, and Mighty Like a Rose is no exception. The type of sleaziness that oozed from earlier songs like "Busy Bodies," "Possession" and "Satellite" is again reflected in the temptresses of "After the Fall" and "All Grown Up" and the scummy male of "Georgie and Her Rival." Though "After the Fall" is most notable for the mesmerizing Spanish guitar played by Tom Waits cohort Marc Ribot and "All Grown Up" finds Costello's vocals absolutely bludgeoning the song's genteel acoustic foundation, both songs are among Costello's most direct, foregoing his recurring tendency to cram too many words into impossible spaces in favor of simple lyrics that actually have room to breathe.

Certainly there are many other facets to Mighty Like a Rose that warrant consideration: its impressive list of contributors, the "agnostic prayer" of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," the record-scratching, long-gone lover of "So Like Candy," the absolute duds that are "Playboy to a Man" and "Sweet Pear." But mostly it's memorable for the musical risks it takes and how it hints at the subjects and styles Costello would revisit throughout the 1990s. It won't ever be regarded as one of the musician's undisputed masterpieces, but it combines enough of Costello at his most musically adventurous and lyrically savage to suggest it deserves a better standing than both critics and fans have historically given it. Those looking to understand the origins of Costello's 1990s albums should start here.

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