One of the unwritten laws of pop is that when the stars grow a beard, the tunes get less melodic, the intentions more earnest, the songs glummer, the lyric sheet longer.
Elvis Costello's new beard isn't even one of those restrained ones that get tended every other day — it's a real '70s just-let-it-grow affair — so naturally one fears the worst. Especially after his last album, Spike, where, even with a smooth chin, he served up the sort of tangled denseness that momentarily impresses, but from which nothing memorable remained.
The worst third of Mighty Like a Rose is just the same. "The Other Side of Summer" is typical. It's very clever musically — what seems to be a tale of that hellish hot season of madness that is permanently California is mirrored in mutant Beach Boys choruses — and some of the lyrics taken alone are nice: for example, the tart "was it a millionaire who said 'imagine no possessions'?"
But the sum of the parts is an unnatural mess. It's simply not a good pop song. You might want to discuss, debate or analyse it, but there's little joy to be had from listening to it.
But most of this new LP is much better. "Invasion Hit Parade" paints a paranoid, bitter picture of a world where democracy and pop music are forced onto people in the name of freedom.
This time the music, a fine melodramatic Philly-soul backing, helps. The song also includes the LP's most timely line. "The liberation forces make movies of their own / Playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned".
Best of all, though, are the personal ballads. "Sweet Pear" is a simple beautiful evocation of a man at once totally insecure and totally devoted, skewered on his
final words "I am your stupid loser, your wretched groom."
"So Like Candy" is the most successful yet of Elvis Costello's occasional songwriting collaborations with Paul McCartney, and the best tune he's sung in years. This time the man is abandoned, but still twisting between blaming himself, herself or just human nature. It's at moments like this when those who proclaim Elvis Costello Britain's most important songwriter make the most sense.