Ahhh, the British.
Where would we all be today without the joys of English musical nihilism? Wasn't the eighth grade just a little easier to take when you listened to Sting and the Police belt out "So Lonely?" Or Morrissey's Smiths singing "Reel Around The Fountain?" Or Robert Smith and the Cure singing just about anything?
Since the dawn of New Wave, Queen Elizabeth's country has produced a long list of very popular, if depressed, musical talent. In spite of this tradition, Elvis Costello is one guy who probably would not make the suicidally distinguished tally.
His bigger hits — "Allison," "Pump It Up," and "Veronica," to name a few — don't hold a candle to the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry" in the hardcore unhappiness department. Up to this point in his career, Costello has produced generally upbeat tunes with lyrics that rarely touch the dark poetry of his peers.
Not so anymore. On his latest album, Mighty Like A Rose, Costello dives soul-first into the pool of disaffected Englishmen. While the album does contain a few token pop romps, the songs often approach funeral dirgeness, with lyrics that make Mighty Like A Rose a true monument to melancholia. Whether you need morose sarcasm in your life, or just plain ol' bitterness, lines like "But if you leave me I am broken / and if I'm broken then only death remains," from "Broken" should satisfy. Have a loved one who's fallen from your grace? Try sticking "Now you're masquerading as a pale powdered genius / Whose every intention has been purged," from "How To Be Dumb," in your next letter.
It's all real, real weighty stuff. That's okay though, since we know the English can make depression danceable (if not down-right fun). Unfortunately, on Mighty Like A Rose, Costello takes the whole thing a bit too far.
On seven of the album's 13 songs, he matches his oh-so-solemn words with even more-so-solemn slow to mid-tempo music. Twice would have been interesting and effective. Four times still would have carried some weight. Seven of thirteen is flat-out boring.
Especially at the end of the album, the songs lose their identities as one flows into the next with little change in rhythm, tempo, or intensity. Costello may have crafted each tune carefully, but their individual potency disappears when placed together on a single album.
Of the six remaining songs, some are catchy, some are upbeat and some are even both. On the opening track, "The Other Side Of Summer," Costello skillfully mixes his acid words with shit-eating-grin music to produce the best example of veiled musical cynicism since Hendrix played the "Star Spangled Banner." Ironically, hearing Costello belt out "The dancing was desperate, the music was worse / They bury your dream and dig up the worthless," sung in a catchy melody over the poppiest of chord progressions makes the statement all the more noticeable. Unfortunately, he ditches this formula after the opening cut.
"Invasion Hit Parade," probably the best cut on Mighty Like A Rose, almost falls in to the pit that killed the the seven of 13 gang. But unlike its near-kin, Costello pumps life into the song with vocal power and rhythmic diversity. The result is arresting, even if the subject, the indictment of the pop-music industry and its associated evils, is a little overdone.
Costello brings in a few buddies to help with the effort, but their contributions and value are minimal. Nick "I'm not quite Simon LeBon" Lowe and studio-wiz Rob Wasserman play uninspiring bass on a few songs. More significant and more disappointing, everybody's favorite Beatle, Paul McCartney, co-wrote "So Like Candy" and "Playboy To A Man."
The first of these two songs is almost certainly the worst on the album. For four-and-a-half minutes, Costello drones on a about a girl who "seems so sweet to me," lulling the most amphetamine-laced mind into a glass-eyed torpor.
Oh well. So it goes, Elvis. Fortunately, one bad album does not a brilliant career end. Nor should it, since when Costello is at his best, he's as good as anybody around. Sure, Mighty Like A Rose does have its moments, but they're too far apart and stuck between stuff that's just too unpalatable to make the album work. E.C. fans take heart, don't mourn his death just yet. If Jordan can miss the winning shot at the buzzer, Costello can have his bad album.