Mighty Like a Rose may not be Elvis Costello's greatest album, but even a lesser work by Costello is far beyond most others' best.
It's been 14 years now since the fiery young Brit in the Buddy Holly specs and the tongue of evil uncovered entire new depths of rock 'n' roll angst.
Except for a short creative slump in the mid-1980s, Costello has been remarkably consistent in his work. Think about it. This Elvis has made far more good albums than the other Elvis ever did.
And Costello is still going strong. Although in recent years the singer's sweet side is showing more and more, Costello's demonic gift for acidic put-downs is as strong as ever.
There is never any doubt this is the same black-hearted jester who began his career with the phrase, "Well I used to be disgusted, but now I only get amused."
Mighty Like a Rose is not quite the same amusement-park ride as his previous album Spike (named Terrell's Tuneup's Album of the Year, in 1989). However, there are some extremely strong songs on the new one.
If the old Fairness Doctrine applied to music, radio stations would be required by law to play Costello's "The Other Side of Summer" immediately after every old Beach Boys surfing song. Elvis is at his cynical best in this song. Taking a bite at one of the Wilson brothers' famed California girls, he sings: "A teen-age girl is crying 'cos she don't look like a million dollars / So, help her if you can / Cos she don't seem to have the attention span."
He even takes a stab at the sainted peacenik John Lennon in this tune: "Was it a millionaire who said, 'Imagine no possessions.'"
Speaking of Lennon, Costello's songwriting partnership with Lennon's old partner, Paul McCartney, is still bearing fruit. The slow, smoky "So Like Candy" could almost be a Frank Sinatra song.
The rocking "Playboy to Man" is not quite as impressive, but Costello's weird screams make it worth it.
"Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs are Taking Over)" is a strange tale of a global insect conspiracy. Never thought Costello would delve into the realm of science fiction, but I guess if he had to do that, evil insects is appropriate for him. The song, heavy on percussion, has a latter-day Tom Waits feel to it.
So does the last song on the album, a Three Penny Opera-style carnival waltz called "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4." Here the undisputed King of Nastiness is sentimental as he sings about a woman's love for her dead father. Of himself, the singer says, "I'm the lucky goon / Who composed this tune from birds arranged on the high wire."
The last verse is uncharacteristically hopeful for Costello: "Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain / I can't believe I'll ever believe in anything else again."
Costello's voice has rarely sounded better than on "After The Fall," which also features a Spanish guitar by Marc Ribot (Tom Waits' guitar player). The song is about a couple continuing a sad love affair even though each realizes the other is pathetic: "We both look like those poor shattered mannequins / Thrown through the window in the riot."
Costello even indulges in a little Celtic mysticism, courtesy of his wife, Cait O'Riordan (an ex-member of The Pogues.) The dirgelike "Broken" would fit in on a Sinead O'Connor record.
Costello remains one of the finest living rock songwriters. He has matured without growing stale. Pray that this lucky goon keeps composing these tunes.