Cleverdick(head), woman-hater, bookworm, yankophile, muso-prat, misery addict ... Elvis Costello has had to endure many lazy and insulting labels over the years and these are just a few of them. His crime: the ability — and, more significantly, the drive — to eschew the mincing half tones of Popular Music and exist instead on a perpetual emotional see-saw.
Call it bloody-mindedness if you like, but Costello has rarely betrayed his intelligence to dabble in pop-poop, or luxuriate in the comfort of compromise. Whether he is sprawling — intoxicated by his own bile — in the Imperial Bedroom, staging a cool coup to become King Of America, fitfully bawling out This Year's Model or, most memorably, gambling for his soul with cards slick with Blood And Chocolate — this is one battered old bard who has never lost his integrity.
Indeed, until now, I'd always considered Costello to be the musical equivalent of a Good Book (impossible to put down), but while Mighty Like The Rose is not a disaster by general downwardly mobile standards, by Costello's it's a vinyl Pompeii. Even the "good" tracks — a lamentable four out of 13 — would pant with shame if forced to socialise with the bulk of his back catalogue.
The first warning bells sound when you check out the credits. They are infested with studio in-jokes. For this album Costello has surrounded himself with what I am assured is the cream of LA sessioneer talent, but going by the results I'd wager they spent most of the time loafing about complaining about "The Biz" and lighting each other's cigarettes. Surrounded by such types, Costello is encouraged to act the embittered, sulking fool who has been 'ignored' for too long.
Perhaps this is why the bulk of Mighty Like A Rose sounds wilfully obscure and directionless, Costello's only real message being "Me And My Mates Don't Care If You Don't Like It."
The first track (and single) "The Other Side Of Summer" is a malodorous lyrical gem wrecked by an irritating bubblegum chorus. If this evokes The Beach Boys then I'm a grain of sand up Wilson's ringpiece. Similarly, the gruelling (acid-fuelled?) "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" and the mean spirited "Invasion Hit Parade" attempt to combine the goblin playfulness of Spike with Blood And Chocolates focused hysteria. Both fail miserably.
With these songs — and "Playboy To A Man," one of two McCartney collaborations, this one sounding for all the world as if Billy Joel has invaded the studio — Costello makes the mistake of assuming that if you throw enough images into one bed they'll eventually have an orgy. Unsurprisingly, the real upshot is that the one pure idea gets heartlessly gang-banged.
"How To Be Dumb" has passion and character, but like "All Grown Up" sees Costello chasing Sgt Pepper up the street and back again. The latter being so similar to "She's Leaving Home" it could almost be a sequel. "Harpie's Bizarre" and "So Like Candy" — the second McCartney collaboration and ironically the least Beatles-addled of the slower material — offer glimpses of what might have been. Intricate, spacious, beautifully orchestrated, these and the more rocking "Georgie And Her Rival" (a candid snapshot of A Woman Spurned) and "Couldn't Call It Unexpected" give us back our beloved storyteller, warps and all.
Even if you give yourself a break and ignore the mealy-mouthed "Sweet Pear" completely, you'll still have the sneering Spanish guitar and sickly sentimentality of "After The Fall" to contend with. In songs like this, Costello gets crafty and plays the scoffing observer, washing his hands of responsibility like a songwriting Pontius Pilate.
"Broken," however, isn't really his fault. His wife Cait O'Riordan wrote this sub-U2 dirge, but it's Elvis who has to try to get comfortable with The Joshua Tree stuck up his ass. I'm all for female songwriters but good God, if this is her best hasn't Cait got any ironing to do? If she doesn't watch it she'll end up playing Linda to Costello's McCartney.
Costello ends Mighty Like A Rose with the words "I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again," which sums up the entire charade. It's not so much that Costello has lost it, more that he can't even be bothered to look. There are some great moments but these are mainly confined to lyrics. Not even Elvis (in this kind of strop) can shoot himself in the foot enough times to cripple himself there.
The music for the most part is self indulgent and sour, or lazy and glutinously sweet. Worst of all, it's bloody dull. It's too easy and very presumptuous to suggest that the transition from Mr Horribly Marred to Mr Happily Married has played havoc with Costello's Quality Control, but the theory remains a promising one. All I know is that I rushed out to greet the cool surf and found myself ankle-deep in snot. The Declan I know would never have treated us so shabbily.