After enjoying a newfound freedom and success with his previous album Spike, Elvis Costello entered the 90s in a surprising fashion. Sporting a beard and shoulder-length hair, it was Elvis as no one had ever seen him before and his 1991 album Mighty Like a Rose is about as angry and dark as they come. Blood & Chocolate may have been the sound of a desperate and angry divorcee but this album almost makes that record seem tame by comparison. Even Costello himself remarked in the liner notes to the expanded edition: "If you really want to hear an angry record then this disc is for you." The results are a mixed bag but there are several gems and experiments that make it worth the difficult journey, even if you only take it occasionally.
The opener "The Other Side of Summer" was a big hit and deservedly so. With its Beach Boys-esque melody it's instantly recognizable and inviting, complete with lyrics that reference a wide variety of desperate subjects and pop culture staples: "Was it a millionaire who said 'Imagine no possessions?'" Much like his last album, there are a lot of different sounds and influences at work here. "Invasion Hit Parade" and "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" are both built on intricate melodies but never quite seem to take off the way they're intended to. "After the Fall" suffers from the same problem: it's a simple guitar-centered piece but it never really catches your attention and passes by a bit too quietly. There's a lot going on in the background: strings, horns, synthesizers, and just about every other instrument you can imagine. It sounds nice but sometimes the production is just a bit too much and overshadows the harmonies and arrangements in a cacophony of sound.
However, there are some stellar tracks here as well. "Sweat Pear" is a hidden gem and contains a guitar solo, a rarity for Costello. "Georgie and Her Rival" sounds like a classic Costello pop piece and it's easy on the ears and catchy to boot while "Harpies Bizarre" sounds a bit like The Beatles and features a lush arrangement. This sounds more like what EC might have been going for with the record and it works wonders here. "How to Be Dumb" is quite possibly the angriest and most venomous song in his catalogue, a five minute tirade that anyone would hate to be on the receiving end of. "So Like Candy" is a beautiful ballad and "All Grown Up" is probably my favorite song on the album, a look into the whining and entitlement that comes with youth before Elvis says, "But look at yourself/You'll see you're still so young/You haven't earned the weariness that sounds so jaded on your tongue".
One track I do want to point out is "Playboy to a Man", a piece co-written with Paul McCartney. It's a loud and rather obnoxious track that includes Costello shouting through a rusted metal pipe. How two brilliant songwriters managed to churn out such an annoying song is beyond me but after one listen it's doubtful you'll revisit it time and time again.
Mighty Like a Rose is, more than anything, a mishmash of sounds and influences with just as many hits as misses. The intricate arrangements often tend to distract from the songs and many of the tracks just feel cold and uninviting while being full of lyrics that, while excellent as always, are a bit too bleak and bitter to make you feel completely comfortable. It's not a bad album but it's also far from his finest work. It's an interesting experiment with enough great cuts to make it a worthwhile purchase but it's a roller-coaster that tries to offer too much too fast and sometimes leaves you feeling dizzy afterward.