Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, aka Elvis Costello, is such a skillful manipulator of words, it's easy to overlook the fact that he has almost nothing to say. His songs are virtual piles of words: he stacks them one upon another, shoves them together to create unusual images, then shoves the images together to create abstruse sentences. Mr. Costello's lyrics have complete authority over his music: he writes melodies that rise and tumble oddly to keep pace with his verbal spate, and he sometimes extends a melodic phrase when he wants to tag an extra line onto a verse.
On his new album, Mighty Like a Rose, Mr. Costello seems so confident of his prowess as a lyricist that he takes liberties: he draws out the first syllable of "mighty" to rhyme it with "light"; he refers to a woman as a "sweet pear, sweet pear," repeating the epithet for emphasis.
For one so obviously in love with words, Mr. Costello is startlingly inarticulate in communicating his ideas. Throughout the album, he takes on weighty issue after weighty issue — death, apocalypse, unrequited love, the anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe, even, in "How to Be Dumb," the difficulty of being a pop star. Yet his language becomes so effusive, his thoughts are nearly indecipherable: "Anyday now a giant insect mutation / Will swoop down and devour the white man's burden," he sings in "Hurry Down Doomsday (the Bugs Are Taking Over)."
Wordiness drains the emotional content from the songs. "After the Fall" and "All Grown Up" are clear attempts at tenderness, yet Mr. Costello's heightened language serves only to distance him from his sentiments, transforming what could have been delicate scenarios into clunky and stagy melodramas.
From album to album, Mr. Costello has adopted different narrative personas: the whisky-soaked country balladeer on Almost Blue in 1981, the oafish American on King of America in '86, the court jester and fool on Spike in '89. But he is forever talking and changing voices without making his point. Unlike Tom Waits (whose music Mr. Costello admires enough to replicate flawlessly in "Hurry Down Doomsday," and whose band members he borrowed on Spike and Mighty Like a Rose), Mr. Costello can't seem to shape his art into a coherent world view. Perhaps what he needs is a good editor — someone to remind him that a simple word or two can carry more meaning than a hundred clever images. Because if he truly has something to say, he's not telling us.