Although Elvis Costello has taken, of late, to shrugging off the alleged "seriousness" of his songs, the listener approaching Mighty Like A Rose for the first few times would do well to bring paper, pencil and a clear head. Not for the first time, El-boy has delivered a collection of songs bewildering in their range and density.
This record's predecessor, Spike, sank its fangs, vengefully into the behinds of Margaret Thatcher, capital punishment and dead comedians. This time, Costello has focused his rage and ranting invective back onto smaller, more intimate concerns, though there are occasional signs that Elvis sometimes takes a day off from being the ragged-whiskered misanthropist. Mighty Like A Rose at times considers the human condition with something like sympathy, or at least resignation.
There is also the spectacle of Elvis crawling across broken metaphors to bare his soul. In "Sweet Pear," a spiralling lament tinted by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's Hovis fanfares, Elvis declares himself "your stupid lover, your wretched groom," flattened by love and hating himself for it. "Broken," an eerie Celtic meditation, written by his wife, Cait O'Riordan, finds Costello waist-deep in mist and misery. "If you leave me then I am broken… if I'm broken only death remains…" Quick, the reviving Bushmills.
The music is recognisably from the same man who has now been with us for 13 albums, but it arrives cloaked in a myriad of disguises. "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" frames Costello against a Bierkeller oompah band. Strings and woodwinds adorn the waltz-like "All Grown Up." For "Harpies Bizarre," Costello has splashed on a wind band and harpsichord.
There is much to admire, but perhaps too little to love. On King Of America, Costello delivered an object-lesson in writing that was straightforward but soulful. Often here, there are too many layers, too many curves to negotiate, too many types of barbed ambiguity.
But he can cut straight to the bone when the mood takes him. "The Other Side Of Summer" is brash rock-pop with a poisoned blade in its toe-cap ("Was it a millionaire who said 'imagine no possessions'?"). My favourite song is "After The Fall," a dark droll ballad of love at the bottom of the barrel, with a beautiful deadpan counterpoint from Marc Ribot's Spanish guitar.
There are just too many Elvis Costellos. One of them is a great songwriter, but the others keep crashing the party.