When critics praised the cynical sophistication in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd as daring in 1979, it seemed like a joke. Elvis Costello and the Attractions had just released Armed Forces, and that was the year's great leap forward in popular music. As the angry young man of British New Wave in the late '70s, Costello recorded three-minute cuts that addressed the soured hopes and neurotic tensions of the modern era with far more passion, and with memorable pith. Costello took a form even then widely thought to be kid stuff and gave it a new aesthetic, emotionally direct and energetic.
His new album, Mighty Like a Rose — his strongest, most effective record since he last played raucous rock & roll with his backup band the Attractions on 1986's Blood & Chocolate — presents an artist less charged, less hysterical, and more deliberate about expressing traditional musical values, as opposed to the visceral virtues of rock. After a miraculous early career (12 albums from 1977 to 1986), Costello's creativity developed from inspired brilliance toward refinement. Dropping the Attractions, as he did on his last album, 1989's dryly self-conscious Spike was a test of his worth, a search for a future beyond the flush and impudence of the punk era that spawned him. But he can't beat his own phenomenon; having created so much stunning music before age 35, he has already defined his limits. All that's left is to do what he has done before, only better — if possible.
You can hear Rose as a sometimes triumphant rewrite of Costello's previous successes. His lyrics have never been more ample or more precise. He catalogs social indecencies (in "How to Be Dumb," he sings about "a building thrown up overnight in one of those reverse earthquakes"; in "The Other Side of Summer," he asks, "Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?"), evoking contemporary outrage and despair in musical news bulletins as vivid as those in Armed Forces, but this time as an aesthete, not a rebel.
The first seven songs are packed with detailed characters, snappy phrases, narrative incidents, startling metaphors, and a recognizable sense of worry. Each has a different tone, demonstrating Costello's wide-ranging musical taste. There's a bumptiously ironic sing-along ("The Other Side of Summer"), a sci-fi folktale ("Hurry Down Doomsday"), a scolding serenade ("How to Be Dumb"), a rueful waltz ("All Grown Up"), a march ("Invasion Hit Parade"), a ballad ("Harpies Bizarre"), even a psychodramatic show tune ("After the Fall").
"The Other Side of Summer" pulls a punning reversal on "the winter of our discontent," drawing an overview of social chaos, from the singer's unseasonal depression about aspects of human folly to ecological dread. It's clever and complex but too formal. Costello's obsession doesn't really take hold until "Invasion Hit Parade," where he once more exposes and attacks his two pet peeves, political subterfuge and media corruption. A dissonant squawk blasts the final verse, followed by an orchestral breakdown. It's the sound of the 20th century collapsing. Costello has finally found a good use for the Tom Waits-style caterwauling distortion he emulated on Spike, and as the noises coalesce (they don't subside), the track also recalls the persistent final chord of "A Day in the Life" from Sgt. Pepper's.
The latter half of the album is weaker, with diffuse love songs, instrumental filler, two bargain-basement summit meetings with Paul McCartney (Costello's collaborator on two Spike tunes as well), and a Sinéad O'Connor rip-off penned by Costello's wife, Cait O'Riordan. And Costello is still working out his modernist influences; the Beatles and Bob Dylan can be heard just below the surface. "How to Be Dumb" mixes organ and piano as Dylan does in the swirling apocalypse of "Like a Rolling Stone." The glorious spitefulness of "Dumb" ("Scratch your own head stupid / Count up to three / Roll over on your back / Repeat after me") also echoes Costello's own early tirades, though it lacks the juice — the guileful drive — of his youthful inspiration.
In the past, Costello used to combine his impulses; emotion jumped out of his grooves without obvious control. This album reveals a singular dilemma: Is there a way for a great rock artist to mature without losing vigor? Mighty Like a Rose is, compared with Costello's earlier work, more subdued, professional, and purposeful. This kills its fast cuts; it's the meticulous, slower tunes — especially "After the Fall" — that confirm Costello's mastery and show the advantage of his new, more considered approach.
"After the Fall" describes two egotistical lovers in a scene of intimate surrender (armed forces clashing in an imperial bedroom). The details of these romantic maneuvers are full of stifled resentment ("You never visit the countryside, so I made you a country to order"). Costello literally doubles the meaning of the scene by adding a faint duet with a backup vocalist on the chorus, subtly evoking the couple's shared misery in quiet, measured words; the closeness of the voices traps you in their midst. This song may be the finest Costello has ever recorded. On Mighty Like a Rose the thrill is gone, but the genius remains.