Hot Press, July 25, 1991

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Coming up roses?

Neil McCormick

Elvis Costello
Mighty Like A Rose

Elvis was first sighted in a 7-Eleven in central London, sneering at the staff while purchasing cigarettes and condoms, looking for all the world like the new king of rock 'n' roll, shabbily dressed and sharp-tongued, a man with a mission. It seems such a long time ago, now. The Stranglers are marketing their greatest bits on daytime TV, a Boomtown Rat saved the world and met the Queen, the sixties came back again and all's well in Disneyland. And Elvis, well, you heard about him. He joined Jethro Tull and went off to raise pigs in Ireland… didn't he?

Has punk rock's answer to the sensitive singer songwriter turned out to be just another rock 'n' roll eccentric? On "Invasion Hit Parade" he sounds under attack by the style armies of the new, sneering about the liberation forces making "movies of their own / Playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned". Pop references abound, from musical sixties steals to stinging throwaway slags aimed at stars, groupies, fans and fashions. But who is the perpetual sucker at the receiving end of all the scorn in "How To Be Dumb"? "Now you're masquerading as a pale powdered genius whose every bad intention has been purged / You would have walked out any time you wanted but face it you didn't have the courage / I guess that makes you a full-time hypocrite or some kind of twisted dilettante…" Could it be Elvis himself, ready to take his place in "the modern museum of mistakes"? It's just a thought.

Elvis Costello still doesn't yield up his secrets easily. I wonder does he chuckle over rock rag reviews like this one? Or does his acerbic treatment of the pop business reflect unease at being a grown-up talent in a young person's playground? There was a time when each of his albums seemed to be stepping stones on a path to greater glory but somewhere in the mid-80's Elvis either lost his way or recognised his limitations. He spent some time stretching and diversifying until, with a map of the parameters of his talent in one fist and a record company cheque in the other, he reinvented himself as an angry old man, The Godfather Of Post Punk Brittle Brit-Pop. You can never doubt for a moment that Elvis loathes complacency but one suspects that most of all he loathes the complacency in himself.

His records now are made with everything and the kitchen sink, as if in an almost vain attempt to stretch some more, to do something different in a field where it was all more or less done by the time the Beatles crossed Abbey Road. My lingering suspicion is that Elvis continues to stimulate for the same reason that he fails to satisfy. He won't grow old gracefully. Even at his best, there is little of the emotionally resonant maturity of other great, enduring songwriters (Dylan, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon). Instead, there are startling couplets, pithy observations, complex analogies tossed together with an impressive but perhaps self-defeating verbosity and a willful obscurity. All this is married to melodic daring, adventurous arranging and a taste for 60's pop. Elvis is the most musical of pop's great songwriters, the most committed, the most enthusiastic… and the least memorable.

Mighty Like A Rose has about as much unity as the collections of B-sides and out-takes that the prodigious songwriter has twice released. Like 1989's Spike, his last official outing. It jumps from track to track with little apparent intent of purpose. And yet he is honing something down, the quality control is greater, the band of merry players a touch more unified, the first impression is of an overwhelmingly complex set of highlights. The fourteen tracks cover such a spectrum of sounds and ideas that, by the time you get to know this album, you may well be skipping tracks to create an easier listening experience.

There is a fistful of songs delivered with a kind of jaunty, post-Langer and Winstanley take on English pop, bouncing along on bubblegum bass lines and classic guitar riffs. "The Other Side Of Summer," "How To Be Dumb" and "Georgie And her Rival" are chock-a-block with retro references, yet even mining the sixties Elvis cannot stay still, constantly altering the verse form and subverting the chorus. The resulting songs are hard to grasp, too complex for pop, too trivial for anything else; they sound at once shallow and meaningful. They compare favourably with his Paul McCartney co-composition "So Like Candy," a simple, spacious and atmospheric track, driven by an evocative spy-theme guitar and building all its verses around one idea.

On "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" and "Invasion Hit Parade" he takes off in another direction altogether, delivering unconventionally arranged, atmospheric rants that reek of a kind of unfocused paranoia. Verse and chorus, concept and detail, all seem disjointed, putting together a picture that is, yeah, deep and meaningless. At his most articulate (these songs are smart, funny and startlingly inventive) Elvis seems content to fire out a lot of little ideas and leave the big ideas to someone else.

Perhaps this is for the best, as big rock 'n' roll ideas usually don't amount to much more than the banal concept that love makes the world go round. In "Invasion Hit Parade" Elvis sneers at "A limousine of singing stars and their brotherhood anthem", aligning himself instead with "the stubborn ones who just refuse to be saved". My beef is this. The last time I went sucker for Elvis was the 1986 album Blood And Chocolate where he reigned in The Attractions and producer Nick Lowe and belted out a record of high passion and personal emotion. In 1991, Elvis still sings with the ferocity and intensity of a man dipping his pen in his own veins but his writing seems increasingly detached from his subject matter (too much chocolate, not enough blood). He sings a host of little third person vignettes, pithy tales of mismatched relationships and distantly observed tragedies.

"After The Fall" is the finest of these, delicately played and lovingly sung, a sad tale about innocent love corrupted by passing time and unnecessary knowledge, soured but not destroyed by betrayal. Elvis demonstrates equal compassion on "All Grown Up," in which the perpetual cynic gently hectors the cod-cynicism of the young. "You haven't earned the weariness / That sounds so jaded on your tongue", he sings. Yet implicit is the idea that Elvis is a wise and weary traveller, a short story writer putting together his latest anthology, (most of which will have been previously printed in a host of middle-brow magazines). Pop music trades in emotion but the emotions Elvis evokes are not his own.

There is a moment where he seems to recognise the impotency. On "Harpies Bizarre" (only Elvis would try to construct a weighty song around a bad pun) he comments, in the middle of a tale of shabby seduction, "I looked on and hesitated / I failed to interrupt". It is this injection of the personal that the songs on Mighty Like A Rose too often lack. He balances the third and first person successfully on "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," a simple song about fear of death that starts out with an anecdote and ends with personal musings. There is a maturity here that Elvis, in his desire to stay at the cutting edge of songwriting, too often fights against. Amidst al the cleverness, the twisting melodies, the non-stop verbosity, the relatively clumsy "Sweat Pear" towers. With its "Something In The Way She Moves" guitar steals, a tanging Elvis solo and a basic, pleading lyric of dedicated love, it resonates with emotion and personality. It is at once the most vulnerable, least sophisticated and most honest song on the album.

Mighty Like A Rose is an album that fires on all cylinders simultaneously, an eager blast from a talent that still puts most of his contemporaries to shame, a collection that stalks the same high ground as his earlier work. Yet the flaws in his style and approach become increasingly apparent with repetition. My presumptuous reservation is that I believe there are heights this songwriter could climb if he really thought about the simplicity of beauty suggested in the album's title. From one gardener to another, the rose can always benefit from a little pruning.

Rating: 9 / 12

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Hot Press, July 25, 1991

Neil McCormick reviews Mighty Like A Rose.


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Page scan.

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