Melody Maker, May 18, 1991

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Melody Maker

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Crown of thorns

Elvis Costello / Mighty Like A Rose

Chris Roberts

I have always laboured under the ... no, that's unfair, I have never laboured. I have always fannied about under the misconception that Elvis Costello was a glamourless righteous politico, Braggish, not my thing, all CND badges and peace marches and anti-vivisection lobbies. Which are all... whatever, whatever. Songs, surely, should get under the individual's skin, should reveal and rebuke and rejoice and sting, should say things that can't be said, should weep and kick and scratch and bite. Though every other year I might begrudgingly notice a deft line, I never realised that this is what Costello does best and does more often than he does anything else. Mighty Like A Rose sacrifices fringe sociology to personalty involved spite, and is bitter and twisted and magnificent.

Recently converted via the Girls Girls Girls albums (but spare me all that country tosh), I was struck at how revelatory it was to hear hirsute hooks and intelligent impassioned lyrics. Is anybody else doing this after the semi-successful wave-of-sound tides? Barely. If Costello is the last melting icicle in Romantica then I'm on his side to the tip of the scraggiest whisker.

All the master songwriter's misogyny comes flooding out of this record. By misogyny I probably mean the snarl of the rejected, the rotten self-pitying venom of the disillusioned romantic idealist, taught by citric experience to push her away before she blows you out. I can't believe a man of Coste4lo's age is being this frank and fearless and not coming on like some easily palatable "new man" cipher. All the best pop records moan with panache about the opposite gender. The microphone as confessor. The performer as bitch-with-script.

Bitch-with-script Elvis is astonishing here. The singing (remember that?) throughout is gorgeous, taunting the edges of what's tender and what grates. The office diehards say it's his best since Trust. Oh, by miles, I should think. If we start quoting couplets we'll be here all night and half of tomorrow. Within a minute we've had "The pale pathetic promises that everybody swallows", but hey, that's just the pop single. "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" is a Lennon-ish nasal assault on "All the secrets of life and other useless things" — these include Beethoven, Rembrandt, rock 'n' roll, Mercedes, Toyota, Buddha and Jesus.

Yet it's "How To Be Dumb" that odds heartstrings to the bow. Words play second fiddle to viciously vindictive swoops of chords. "All Grown Up" is gentler, but deceptive — again he's dissecting the heroine with no mean literacy. Because, one assumes, she merits some attention. "Invasion Hit Parade," another Beatles burlesque, manages to chide not only Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes but also those, "Playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned." My, he was quick off the mark there.

Nearly every track tells the story of a he and a she, invariably mismatched and juggling desire and despair. "So Like Candy" is the simplest and most graceful. "Playboy To A Man" is a superbly sinuous jumble, a tirade and a trance. "Broken", his wife's composition, is sparse and vocal and eerie, a "Song To The Siren" that doesn't entirely reach her. It'd be nice if now and again he allowed the musk to do the talking, but "Sweet Pear" concludes with perhaps the key line to Costello's roaring, ravenous, resurrection — "I am your stupid lover, your wretched groom." His funeral, her trial? The dedication says: "To Cait, my unspeakable wife."

I'm sure Elvis Costello has a sense of humour. Thankfully he keeps it well away from this triumphant record, moments of which cause me to involuntarily close my eyes and shiver. A relentless, arrogant, furious catalogue of complaints and counterattacks. I was wrong, and I'm beautifully-formed enough to admit it. The man's a bloodied love saint from the depths.

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Melody Maker, May 18, 1991


Chris Roberts reviews Mighty Like A Rose.

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