New Musical Express, July 13, 1991

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This year's muddle

Terry Staunton

Elvis Costello
Hammersmith Odeon

The hair is getting decidedly out of hand. An unruly growth all over his head, a bird's nest of curly ginger surrounding his mouth. Nine out of ten false beards look more realistic than Elvis Costello's real one. How is anyone expected to take seriously a man who appears to have Mick Hucknall's scalp on his chin?

But we are not here to poke fun at someone's physical appearance, no matter how startling it might be on first sight. There are matters of greater concern to discuss, in particular the curious and confused state of Costello's career.

Mighty Like A Rose is a mess, no two ways about it. Yes, there's perhaps three examples of positive genius on the album, but quite frankly that's not enough. They're more than outweighed by leaden and laboured songs which would have been laughed out of the house a few years ago. It is truly a sad state of affairs when a young pretender like John Wesley Harding is actually making better records than the man he so obviously wants to emulate.

Costello's last temporary aberration was the not particularly well-received Goodbye Cruel World album in 1984, but he managed to correct himself on the resulting tour. What hadn't been a great success in the studio was a triumph on the live stage, with Elvis and The Attractions breathing life and fire into the awkward material.

Mighty Like A Rose, however, has not been salvaged in the same way, not only does this year's band, the oddly-named Rude 5, stumble their way through Costello's latest songs like blind men, they continually wreck the glorious records of old. Elvis' ham-fisted rearrangement of "Temptation" is nothing short of musical castration.

The Attractions are no more, for whatever reasons, and that alone is perfectly acceptable — but Costello is wilfully fannying about with his past as if to prove something to himself. Why doesn't he just leave the old songs alone? Why doesn't he just close those particular chapters, rather than trying to rewrite them with a blunt pencil?

Occasionally the nail is hit firmly on the head; "New Lace Sleeves" still holds the remorse and melancholy we first heard ten years ago, and "Alison" possesses such power that no amount of reworking can harm it. The song is indestructible.

Likewise, "Tramp Down The Dirt" has replaced "Shipbuilding" as Costello's tour de force of spitting venom and spouting vitriol. "Dirt" has been updated for 1991 to include references to Thatcher's "glove puppet" successor, and Elvis urges us to avoid complacency and to hound the Iron Lady to her grave. It's the only moment of the show where Costello stands alone with his guitar, completely free from the vulgarities of the Rude 5.

When he is surrounded by the laconic muso musing of the band (including sessioneers extraordinaire Jerry Scheff on bass and Marc Ribot on guitar) Costello gets lazy, almost Las Vegas in his approach. The only survivor from The Attractions, the one-man tower of power that is Pete Thomas, does his best to crash and bash his way through the more frenetic passages of the evening, but he's held back by the somnambulists in front of his drumkit. To everyone but Thomas, this is nothing more than another gig, another jobs As Elvis once said himself: "There is no danger, it's a professional career."

At times the show is simply horrendous. On record "The Other Side Of Summer" is a well observed attack on the platitudes of West Coast smugness set to an ironic musical pastiche of The Beach Boys — so why does Elvis play it as a bloody waltz on stage?

"Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" is undoubtedly the emperor of all turkeys, a nonsensical and fractured assault on all things that get Costello's goat, but totally lacking the wit and imagery of previous diatribes like "Tokyo Storm Warning." On the live stage it's a boorish battering ram and the signal for more than lust a few punters to leave the building.

Is this the beginning of the end for Elvis? Can he steer himself out of the creative cul-de-sac he currently finds himself in? On "How To Be Dumb" from Mighty Like A Rose he attacks lame critics and self-obsessives, but, to paraphrase his good mate Alan Bleasdale, every time you point a finger at someone you're pointing three at yourself.

Elvis Costello, I hope you're happy now. Are you ready to take your place in the modern museum of mistakes?

Tags: Hammersmith OdeonLondonThe Rude 5Mighty Like A RoseGoodbye Cruel WorldThe AttractionsTemptationNew Lace SleevesAlisonTramp The Dirt DownShipbuildingMargaret ThatcherJerry ScheffMarc RibotPete ThomasThe Beach BoysThe Other Side Of SummerHurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)Tokyo Storm WarningHow To Be DumbAlan Bleasdale

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New Musical Express, July 13, 1991

Terry Staunton reviews Elvis Costello with The Rude 5, July 1, 3 and 7, Hammersmith Odeon, London.


1991-07-13 New Musical Express page 40 clipping 01.jpg

Photo by Derek Ridgers.
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Cover and page scan.
1991-07-13 New Musical Express cover.jpg 1991-07-13 New Musical Express page 40.jpg


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