Columbia Daily Spectator, June 12, 1991

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Generous and inarticulate: Take
off your party dress


Max Winter

When I was four or five, a parent used to carry me and sing the song from which Elvis Costello's new album, Mighty Like a Rose, takes its title. I'll try not to let my past affect my judgement.

Unintelligibility, as far as Elvis Costello is concerned, is a virtue. It worked particularly well on the earlier Imperial Bedroom and the recent Blood and Chocolate, but was relatively absent from Spike. Costello's lyrics are inspired when you can hear them; articulation equals concern, and unintelligible lyrics only serve to accent the intelligible ones. Good news! Half of the lyrics on this album have fallen into Costello's new beard. The words that come through are Elvis at his most vicious, far nastier than Spike, an album which, I'm sure, would have liked to crush us all with its alternately irritating and sickeningly sweet thumb. The album has its skippables, but a boldness carries most of the songs.

The songs that suggest Kurt Weill are possibly the record's strongest items—especially in the case of the finale, "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," an oppressive waltz — about ghosts, father figures, and autumnal imagery — which clearly belongs in 'The Threepenny Opera." Jerry Scheff's bass notes shook the college magazines next to my speakers. I could also connect this song with Bob Dylan's "Sad Lady of the Lowlands," but I think I won't, having only heard "Lady" once.

As Costello screams lines like "As the clouds cover the sky the evening ends / Describing a picture of eyes finally closing / As you sometimes glimpse terrible faces in the fire," a listener might realize that the ugliness or greasiness of Costello's voice is its best quality; the particularly enlightened listener might, in a rarer moment, realize that beauty is often ugliness carried with pride. (Think of the Roman busts, or of the Kouros.) Another pleasantly ugly song is "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)"; Elvis rasps, "You want to scream and shout my little flaxen lout / Hurry down Doomsday the bugs are taking over" as drums, guitars, and other machines collide in a manner that hurt Spike's "Chewing Gum." Costello obviously wanted his band to mesh in discord at specific points in "Chewing Gum" — the problem is that they didn't mesh successfully. Because Elvis has become more selective, many of the "ugly" songs here are fairly enjoyable.

About the incomprehensibility. Obviously, incomprehensibility stimulates the imagination; the imagination has twice as much fun here, though, because the comprehensible lines are so apt: from "Sweet Pear," "I am your stupid lover, your wretched groom"; from "Doomsday," "She sleeps with the shirt of a late great country singer"; and from "How To Be Dumb," "Now you're masquerading as pale powdered genius / Whose every bad intention has been purged." Elvis' verses used to depend on cheap wordplay, many times on the simple inversion of a cliche — though they were enjoyable, they wouldn't last because they lingered in the peripheral zone of the word game.

Rose isn't an entirely mature album, as shown by "Playboy to a Man" and "Broken." The garish and bouncy "Playboy" can only be the result of a collaboration with Paul McCartney, while "Broken" is musically altruistic, if such a quality is possible. The song has few notes, all of them low, and reads like a suicide note: "But if you leave me then I am broken / And if I'm broken then only death remains."

True morbidity requires subtlety. Rose shows signs, though, of a shift in direction, possibly more rewarding for Elvis Costello and his listeners than more burrowing into the pop sound. Let's just hope he doesn't shave.

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Columbia Daily Spectator, June 12, 1991


Max Winter reviews Mighty Like a Rose.

Images

1991-06-12 Columbia Daily Spectator clipping.jpg
Photo by Amelia Stein.

1991-06-12 Columbia Daily Spectator page 03.jpg
Page scan.

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