After 10 regular studio releases in 10 years on Columbia Records, accompanied by rave reviews and moderate sales, Elvis Costello jettisoned his band, the Attractions, switched to Warner Brothers Records, and spent 28 months preparing his label debut, Spike, which appeared early in 1989. The results were more raves, a Top 20 single in "Veronica" (Costello's first in the U.S.) and the third gold record certification of the artist's career.
Further, Costello demonstrated that he could do more than just flirt with musical styles different from the urgent, punkish rock with which he'd emerged. Spike presented everything from folk protest to New Orleans jazz, all of it overlaid with the songwriter's typically witty, pun-filled lyrics.
Another 28 months have passed, and now comes Mighty Like A Rose (the title taken from the Nevin/Stanton turn-of-the-century standard that is also sometimes called "Mighty Lak' A Rose"), Costello's 12th album (not counting his numerous compilations and side projects), which continues in the diverse vein of its predecessor. But this time, despite the usual promotional rounds of interviews and touring, the album looks like one of Costello's poorest sellers ever.
While one might point to the wrong choice of single as one reason for this ("The Other Side Of Summer" tries to sound like the Beach Boys, but succeeds only in sounding like Squeeze, while "Georgie And Her Rival" is the obvious "Veronica" sound-alike and would have made a more familiar lead-in to casual fans), there's really no second-guessing public taste. What can be said is that, while as ambitious as ever, Costello seems to be selling some pretty tired goods this time around, both lyrically and musically.
The artist has always had an acid tongue, and his vitriol is no sweeter here, even when mouthing the puns of "So Like Candy," one of a series of boy-hates-girl songs that make this the most conflicted set of compositions by an apparently happily married man since Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel Of Love. Costello has frequently been compared to Bob Dylan in this regard, a comparison he continues to justify by re-writing "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)" as "How To Be Dumb," but the relevant pessimist here seems to be Leonard Cohen, whose well-known self-pity is evoked in such lines as "Well I'm the lucky goon / Who composed this tune from birds arranged on the high wire."
One can almost feel the obsessively allusive Costello nudging his listener and hear him saying, "Bird on a wire, get it?" especially since he drops such references everywhere on the album, whether he's borrowing bass lines from "Don't Let Me Down" or "I Want You (She's so Heavy)" or, in "Invasion Hit Parade," revising Gil Scott-Heron: "Incidentally the revolution will be televised."
All of this is good for a titter among those (many of them rock critics) who share Costello's taste in pop music, but, here at least, it doesn't add up to much. Costello doesn't so much make coherent albums as individually impressive songs, and even the songs are rarely united lyrics as much as they are individual clever lines. In pursuit of those lines, tenses get altered within verses; pronouns change; sometimes, as in "Georgie And Her Rival," it isn't even clear who's making obscene phone calls to whom.
But the narrative confusion (at least some of which is no doubt deliberate) is less of a problem than Costello's expanding musical ambitions, which often find him doing verbal gymnastics in order to enjamb his lyrics into melodic lines they don't really fit. As a result, he isn't able to phrase for meaning, and much of his wit and storytelling are left to be discovered in the lyric sheet.
In one of those promotional interviews he's done recently, Costello speaks of his increasing interest in music as opposed to lyrics — he says that for once he worked as much or more on the music as on the lyrics of Mighty Like A Rose. One can only reply that what he still needs to work on is the integration of the two and that, while eloquence has never been his problem, if he really wants to be ranked with Dylan and Cohen (as it often seems he deserves to be), more self-examination and less reflexive lashing-out are called for next time.