Like the Beatles with their "white album," Elvis Costello opens his latest effort with a Beach Boys parody, but his own tragedian intentions are less mirthful. With falsetto harmonies giving wind to "the foaming breakers of the poisonous surf," "The Other Side of Summer" is a stunningly clever overture, its sweeping non sequiturs taking umbrage at a whole world of hypocrisy, illusions, mistakes and mortality. It's a cheerful-sounding dirge dispiriting enough to make you join Brian Wilson in lifelong therapy.
"Was it a millionaire who said 'imagine no possessions'? / A poor little schoolboy who said 'we don't need no lessons'?" he asks in the opener, taking stabs at John Lennon and Roger Waters. That's just for starters: "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs are Taking Over)" — which switches to a grating Tom Waits groove — devotes a verse to "sensitive" insect Sting, who's also alluded to in "Invasion Hit Parade," which paints a socially enlightened brigade of liberal rockers as latent fascists. Ouch!
If Costello had nothing more on his mind than getting snippy with his pop contemporaries, you might simply admire the craft in his cattiness, but the fact is that — such jibes aside — Mighty Like a Rose is his warmest work to date.
The first five songs constitute a suite of devastating cultural criticism, but even these offer compassionate moments. The album's midsection is a quintet of romantic mishaps most like the baroque Imperial Bedroom — perfectly detailed short stories about horny men, misguided women and adulterous couples who miss each other's points; capping the album is a highly personal trio of songs about nervously devoted marital love and the dread of death. Rose is a tour de force by any other name.