Even before the '70s were over, Elvis Costello already had outlasted most of his new wave peers and started his stunning evolution from an angry young punk into one of the most thoughtful and important songwriters of our time.
It's that same distinction that makes it easy for fans to expect each new album to elevate this prolific British star to greater artistic heights. But after the remarkably fruitful '80s — which found Costello releasing 10 albums in 10 years, including such ambitious landmarks as Imperial Bedroom, King of America, and Spike — even he had to be wondering what he would do for an encore.
So on his 14th American album, the intriguing Mighty Like a Rose, Costello winds up taking stock more than taking chances. All of the compositions are new, yet many recall the moods and melodies of earlier songs, as if he decided to go back and reexamine ideas that he might have only sideswiped during his zealous genre-hopping exercises of the past. Even the line-up of musical cohorts found here — including Paul McCartney, bassist Nick Lowe, drummer Pete Thomas, guitarists Marc Ribot and James Burton, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band — is culled from associations that span his career.
Costello may be feeling nostalgic at age 35, but he has not lost his sardonic wit, nor his vitriolic drive. In the chiding "How to Be Dumb" — a riveting rewrite of Blood and Chocolate's "Next Time Round" — he scowls at self-serving motives and their self-destructive consequences ("Trapped in the House of the Perpetual Sucker / Where bitterness always ends so pitifully / You always had to dress up your envy / In some half-remembered philosophy").
"Invasion Hit Parade" describes a vacuous world ruled by political corruption and greed that offers "no salvation of regrets...just non-stop Disco Tex & the Sex-o-lettes" (a hilarious reference to a campy '70s disco act fronted by Monte Rock III).
The younger Costello might have continued in that ragin vein for an entire album, but the mature Costello has learned to channel his contempt into stirring, often deceptively chipper vignettes. With its cascading chorus and Beach Boys-like harmonies, "The Other Side of Summer" could easily pass for a surfing anthem — until you realize that he is singing about forest fires instead of suntans, polluted oceans instead of crashing waves. He applies the same ironic twist to the poignant, painful tales of failed and foiled romance in "Georgie and Her Rival," "Harpies Bizarre," and "Couldn't Call It Unexpected."
Two new collaborations with McCartney are disappointing compared to such previous triumphs as "Veronica" and "My Brave Face": "Playboy to a Man" is a raucous throwaway piloted by a screeching, almost undecipherable vocal, and the syrupy "So Like Candy" threatens to belabor its too-obvious metaphor. The latter song, however, is rescued by Costello's earnest singing and holds up to the other, surprisingly numerous ballads on this CD, which also include the Celtic-flavored "All Grown Up," the powerful "After the Fall," and the depressing "Broken" (written by wife Cait O'Riordan).
Although I'd gladly trade "Hurry Down Doomsday" (a cacaphonous knockoff of 1986's "Tokyo Storm Warning") or the whiny "Sweet Pear" for more examples of his pure pop genius (like his own version of "You Bowed Down," the song he wrote for Roger McGuinn's Back From Rio), Mighty Like a Rose finds Costello's mindset as thorny as ever — and his artistry in full bloom.