The man who peers out from the cover of 'Mighty Like A Rose' is not the clean shaven avenging nerd of the summer of 77. If you passed him in the street you might think he lived there, his straggly beard and hair framing his Lennon specs.
Mighty Like A Rose, now near it's 25th birthday, is a much maligned LP from his back catalogue , along with the Brodsky Quartet release 2 years later, perhaps where Elvis and his mainstream pop audience parted company. The recent success of 'Spike' and Macca collaboration single 'Veronica' may have won him some new fans but MLAR (I'm not going to keep writing it in full) sent them scurrying to the hills with it's baroque pop stylings.
I adore it. Yes I'm a Costello obsessive. This isn't a case of sticking up for the runt of the litter or being wilfully obtuse. Those who claim it collapses under the weight of it's own 'everything AND the kitchen sink' production and 'clever-cleverness' need a punch for being so dull.
"as for 'arty-farty', that's a phrase that should be forcibly removed from the dictionary with a pair of scissors"
The bearded and bedraggled Elvis was riding along in an automobile with a bevy (the official collective term) of beauties for the Beach Boys pastiche 'The Other Side Of Summer' although strictly speaking it owes more of a debt to Randy Newman's 'I Love LA'. Where Randy sang in praise of the worst streets in the city, Costello outlines the dark side of life pointing out the homelessness and misery behind the shades and bikinis. Randy's promo for 'I Love LA' also featured him in an car surrounded by a bevy or two - seemingly a requirement for bespectacled songwriters.
The most quoted couplet from the album 'Was it a millionaire that said "imagine no possessions? A poor little schoolboy who said 'we don't need no lessons'" sets out the tone for Mighty Like A Rose. It is an angry, spiteful, cantankerous, disappointed and resolutely self righteous bastard of a album.
Although his band 'The Attractions' had dispersed after an equally bad tempered 'Blood & Chocolate' in 1986 it took Bruce Thomas' memoir 'The Big Wheel' full of tales of life on the road including side swipes at 'The Singer' for Elvis to bare his teeth in song. If there is a songwriter you don't want to piss off it's probably Elvis' with his acidic rhyming dictionary.
'How To Be Dumb' - you can hear the bile hitting the mic as Costello spits out "And beautiful people stampede to the doorway of the funniest fucker in the world" you expect to see venom arcing from the speakers.
"You could've walked out any time you wanted
but face it you didn't have the courage
I guess that makes you a full time hypocrite
or some kind of twisted dilettante
Funny though people don't usually get so ugly
till they think they know what they want"
No one was probably more surprised than Costello that Bruce Thomas signed back on for a couple of albums and world tours in 1994. It's as childish as Lennon's 'How Do You Sleep' but doesn't attack Thomas' musicianship but his "brand new occupation" where "Every fleeting thought is a pearl" a lyrical scalpel instead of a brick. It was interesting to see in a biography of Tom Waits that when approached to talk about his semi regular employer, Marc Ribot demurred saying that Tom Waits, along with Elvis has specifi.cally asked him not to contribute to any books regarding his work with them. Marc Ribot needed no such request, playing rhythm guitar on 'How To Be Dumb' was probably enough. of a warning
The spite in 'Hurry Down Doomsday' 'Wake up zombie, write yourself another book' and 'All Grown Up' with some wonderful string arrangements may or may not be also aimed at Thomas, the latter chiding a teenage girl "You haven't earned the weariness / That sounds so jaded on your tongue". The album's main fault in the eyes of it's detractors is its production and perhaps 'Invasion Hit Parade' and 'Harpies Bizarre' can be pointed to as prime examples of Costello egging the pudding. The latters harpsichord sound and medieval air is seen as too precious and the former just too suffocated by musical jokes and instrumentation.
Yet when the production is minimal like on the stark 'Broken' with some of his bleakest couplets "But if you leave me, then I am broken / And if I'm broken, then only death remains" its equally as effective. 'After The Fall' similarly is underpinned by some fine Spanish guitar from Marc Ribot with it's illicit tale of sex after an adulterous affair by the wife of the couple. The songs of revenge and guilt are still serving him well.
Like 'Spike' this album features a couple more songs from his collaboration with Paul McCartney and it's very much a game of two halves. 'So Like Candy' is one of the best songs that Paul has been involved with for many a year. A perfect jagged anti-love song with an impassioned vocal if I was to guess I would say that the chorus was written by McCartney and lines like "Here lie the records that she scratched / And on the sleeve I find a note attached" are pure Elvis. His old flame, very long in the past at this point, Bebe Buell, claimed this refers to her trashing his record collection after a lover's tiff.
The other MacManus \ Macca co-write, 'Playboy To A Man' is a bit of a mess. It's the kind of Little Richard rock n roll shouter that McCartney could probably pull off back in the day but Costello's attempts to reach the same screaming pitch just sounds strained and painful. The outro with its piano car crash and screeching is just horrific
'Too many words' is often said by Costello's critics 'How few would you like, sir?' should be the response. 'Georgie & Her Rival' may well suffer from this however, it's slightly confusing narrative concerning a pair of scheming women torturing a suitor (or drunk phone pest if you prefer) still has a winning chorus. Whereas the loving 'Sweet Pear' is less verbose and it's brass and delicate playing along with a fine falsetto from Costello is one of his hidden gems.
The album's closing and crowning glory was born from the Channel 4 drama, GBH, and Costello's work with Richard Harvey, in particular it's opening and closing theme. Elements form the foundation of 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected No.4' with it's obtuse lyric. It appears to be a rejection of religion, spirit and the fear of impending death. When performed on the occasional Costello/Nieve tours from the late 90's onwards the song often formed the finale of each concert. The PA was turned off and both piano and voice unamplified, Elvis would stalk the edge of the stage projecting his voice to back row. A sudden chill as in the song's lyrics would fill the air and shivers would quickly shoot up the spine.
If, as I said, Mighty Like A Rose marked the point where Elvis lost many of his "pop" fans with his appearance, the LA session musicians and his experimentation then more fool them. Rather than the blunder current opinion appears to believe it is, Mighty Like A Rose is packed with more imagination, wit and spark than most artists manage within their entire careers.
'Who on earth is tapping at the window?
Does that face still linger at the pane?
I saw you shiver though the room was like a furnace
A shadow of regret across a young mother's face
So toll the bell or rock the cradle
Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain
I can't believe, I'll never believe in anything again'