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Review of Mighty Like A Rose Rhino re-release
Uncut, 2002-11-01
- Nick Hasted


Great albums that have fallen off the critical radar

LABEL Warner Brothers WX 419

PRODUCED BY Mitchell Froom, Kevin Killen and DPA MacManus


MUSICIANS: Elvis Costello (vocals, guitar), PeteThomas (drums), Jim Keltner (drums), James Burton (guitar), Marc Ribot (guitar, banjo, cornet), Nick Lowe (bass), Jerry Scheff (bass), T-BoneWolk (bass), Larry Knechtel (keyboards), Benmont Tench (keyboards), Mitchell Froom (Mellotron, celeste), Ross MacManus (trumpet), The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Fiachra Tench (orchestration)

TRACKS: The Other Side Of Summer • Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over) • How To Be Dumb • All Grown Up • Invasion Hit Parade • Harpies Bizarre • After The Fall • Georgie And Her Rival • So Like Candy • Interlude: Couldn't Call It Unexpected No 2 • Playboy To A Man • Sweet Pear • Broken • Couldn't Call It Unexpected No 4

Mighty Like A Rose
by Elvis Costello

SUMMER 1991, AND Elvis Costello's kingdom was about to crumble. In the world outside, it was the year of Screamadelica, Nevermind, Blue Lines and dance culture's accelerating spread. The Berlin Wall was down, Ecstasy was in, new musical hybrids were forming, and neo-Carnaby Street primary colours colonised teenage fashion, a sign of how bright the future seemed. What price, then, a one-time Beloved Entertainer coming back from two years' absence with a sprawling, literate rejection of the times, hiding behind a huge beard and hair that made him look like a wild-eyed prophet in the wilderness, or a crank accosting passers-by on Oxford Street, a mumbling vagabond to steer well clear of in this slick new dawn?

Up until that year, Costello's scornful, snaking statements on Britain's shams and hypocrisies had for many given him the status of a Dylan, truly the last punk standing, each new release greeted by dutiful two-part features in the music press as he decoded his latest lyrics for the faithful. But as the 1980s wore on and he entered his 30s, Costello seemed to tire of all that. He acrimoniously split The Attractions, the powerhouse band that had defined his sound. He left his wife (sneaking infidelities had informed much of his guilt-drenched work), married ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan and moved to Dublin. He left Demon for Warner Brothers, where the old days of two punched-out albums a year would be replaced by a more sedate, expensive, corporate schedule. Though his first album for them, 1989's Spike, had included some of his best songs, and his only US Top 20 hit, "Veronica", you could hear the tension and intensity leaving his music on many of its diverse, unfocused, Attractionless tracks.

Mighty Like A Rose was the jagged rock on which his remaining reputation ran aground. Some simply looked at that flaming beard and flinched, as if worried the one-time besuited Buddy Holly from Hell was going to ask for spare change, an effect he seemed to welcome ("Move to the hills of Dublin," he wrote in a fake diary of his Warner years. "Very cold so start to grow hair and beard. Seems to scare people, so grow it longer... "). Pre-emptively, he shunned the music press and, amid some reverential reviews, was ritually slaughtered by Barbara Ellen in NME: "By Costello's [standards], it's a vinyl Pompeii... I rushed out to greet the cool surf and found myself ankle-deep in snot.''

The list of well-heeled West Coast session musicians on the sleeve (Jim Keltner et al), Costello's revelation in European interviews that he listened to classical music now with more interest than pop, the beard, the beard... it all seemed to signal a deathly, mistaken maturity. Meanwhile Primal Scream were moving on up. Even I, a confirmed fan, wondered "Why bother?"

It was only when I picked it up second-hand years later that I realised our collective mistake. Mighty Like A Rose does contain the seeds of Costello's later, partial decline, its ambition leading to the dilettante Brodsky Quartet, Anne Sofie Von Otter and Bacharach collaborations, and the erosion of his talent to the point where he appears to struggle to write a tune or pointed lyric on this year's When I Was Cruel. But it hangs on the cusp, between his strengths and something beyond them.

It's instructive that he had tried to record it with a reformed Attractions in 1990, before unhealed bitterness intervened. The musicians he assembled instead played just like them, the keyboard riffs (by Larry Knechtel, mostly) were Nieve in all but name. As he sorrowfully explained to a reporter as the record's rejection became clear, "They're very simple, very poppy songs." But, removed from the post-punk rat race, they're also much more. Over its course, Mighty Like A Rose builds to a state of unapologetic, spiritual transcendence which the Bard of Bile that his audience were comfortable with could never have touched; nor has he touched it since.

But this state, in a record he specifically designed to move from "despair to... cynicism to... a fairly hopeful view", is not reached swiftly. Mighty Like A Rose's most immediate strength in 2002 is instead the amount of devastating lyrical time-bombs it contains about today, as if it's a buried protest record activated by the sound of the Big Brother theme tune and the front-page news of another Beckham birth. "The Other Side Of Summer", "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)", "How To Be Dumb and "Invasion Hit Parade" are four of the first five songs, all suggesting there's been a vacating of Britain's soul, a silent, media-sponsored cataclysm, and that an alien apocalypse would come as a relief. Great lost, harmony-drenched non-hit single "The Other Side Of Surnmer" summed up this early storm warning, with its teenage girl "crying 'cos she don't look like a million dollars/So help her if you can/'Cos she don't seem to have the attention span... " Elsewhere, "the parents of those kidnapped children start the bidding for their tears", now such shamelessness seeming round the corner.

Further songs (including "So like Candy", co-written with Paul McCartney) cover Costello's old ground of lovers at war. But it's the closing pair of songs that confirm the redemptive promise hidden in the cynical first lines of "The Other Side Of Surnmer", that there's not only "malice" but "magic" here.

"Broken" is a dirge written by his new wife, a flatly-sung imagining of the zombie state after faith in love fails, which brings the record to a despairing halt. It's this sequencing that then makes "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No 4" one of Costello's most moving songs (it was later used in the theme to Alan Bleasdale's TV series GBH). A remorselessly melodic Irish fairground shanty cornets, tubas and calliopes support its tale of cynicism and self-pity defeated, of dread, wonder and divinity waiting to be let in, as Costello asks, "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/ Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain."

It's a plea a world away from "Pump It Up" - a world worth rediscovering.



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