Nearly a decade and a half since emerging as the most articulate, obsessively witty, four-eyed hope of the new-wave movement, Elvis Costello is still haunted by "Alison," that frosty-hearted wench who surrendered her party dress.
Different guises and altered circumstances can't change the fact that she remains the mercurial target of all Costello's diatribes since her initial ignominious entry as the heroine of his first great love song.
"I'm not gonna get too sentimental like those other sticky valentines," the embittered Brit who was born Declan MacManus sang, and so began the most astonishingly prolific, uncompromising anti-career In the history of pop music.
Starting with the seminal My Aim is True (1977), Costello has fired off his caustic studio missives (missiles?) at the rate of nearly one per year: the crackling This Year's Model ('78): the shimmering Armed Forces ('79): the soulful Get Happy!! ('80): the blistering Trust and the Nashville field trip Almost Blue (both '81); the sprawling Imperial Bedroom ('82); the frisky Punch the Clock ('83); the besotted Goodbye Cruel World ('84): the transitional Blood & Chocolate and King of America (both '86): the eclectic Spike ('88): and the brand-new ambitious Mighty Like a Rose (Warner Bros.).
All along it's been wordplay as swordplay and opaque puns for punters. The impassioned series of jousts, loaded to wound-seeking with barbs and ironies, has resulted in an occasional masterpiece, but even Costello's lesser works demand attention.
Mighty Like a Rose, which beats a hasty retreat from the genre-jumping of Spike, is as melodically and lyrically dense — and hence, as jubilantly convoluted — as anything Costello has ever done.
But given the obvious redemptive emotional nourishment creeping into decidedly unsticky valentines like the exquisite "Sweet Pear," one might assume that the once angry young man, now happily married, is no longer angry.
No, that caustic rage, once so cathartic, hasn't simply congealed into one big unsettling blob of bitterness. But most of ...Rose's 14 tunes suggest a man standing closer than ever to the doorway of self-discovery, ready to go inside at any given moment.
Always flirting with the outer reaches of the pop charts, Costello has once again come up with the perfect anti-single in the deceptively bouncy intro, "The Other Side of Summer." Subverting the Beach Boys sun-sand-surf ethic for his own malevolent purposes is an irresistibly Costelloian ploy, which may or may not yield a sequel to his semi-hit, "Veronica."
That song, the first fruit of Costello's odd-couple collaboration with Paul McCartney, became the centerpiece of Spike. The new album offers two additions to the Costello-McCartney oeuvre — one successful ("So Like Candy") and one ("Playboy to a Man") whose virtues can barely be discerned beneath the frantic abundance of hook overspill.
Throughout Mighty Like a Rose, Costello, an artist whose record sales have never really matched his artistic impact, has again taken the time-honored vernacular of pop for a perversely invigorating ride, while keeping one finger planted on its essential pulse.
More importantly, he has nudged those hallmarks of true romance — contempt, pity, and self-loathing — into a populist vision that transcends his dependably private realm of peculiar significance.
Some things, however, are axiomatic: Every fatally flawed relationship is just the reappearance of Alison wearing a different perfume; permanent redemption is an unattainable illusion, and Costello's aim is still remarkably true.