Select, June 1991

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Elvis Costello / Mighty Like A Rose

Glyn Brown

When a new offering from Elvis Costello is rumoured, the tense punter quivers with anticipatory excitement, flinches with a frisson of fear. As we well know, Costello is acutely aware of the ugliness of the planet; for him, the job is to reveal it.

Unfortunately, at his worst the man has a tendency to be both patronising and didactic in a way which, frankly, is less than useless in righting the miserable situations he discusses. Side one of Mighty Like A Rose is a fine example.

Kicking off with the single, "The Other Side Of Summer," Costello marries unfettered cynicism and disgust ("The mightiest rose, the absence of perfume / The casual killers / The military curfew") with a grim travesty of a tune. Uncertain as to the exact tenor of the album, we await further clues. They come with "Invasion Hit Parade," a 1994-style hoedown where "the black market eats up all your failures" and your neighbour is a Hitler Youth-type informer.

"How To Be Dumb" is all-out, almost cherishable for its utter nihilism. The song may be a diatribe against a current government policy of de-education. The lyric doesn't mess: "Scratch your own head, stupid / Count up to three / Roll over on your back / Repeat after me / Now you know how to be dumb..."

"All Grown Up" opens simply enough: "I'm trouble, she said, spread out on the floor of her father's house".

All this invective would somehow seem more worthwhile if at least there were a touch of humour and listenable, dynamic melodies. But the numbers so-far listed sound like identical grey shirts flapping forlornly in a winter breeze.

Thank God, then, for "After The Fall" with its Spanish guitar, which lends a certain poetry to the expected hangdog lyric.

And so to side two, which contains Costello treasure. The upbeat tempo of "Georgie And Her Rival" delivers punch to the story of a girl's jealousy, and the couplets ("Georgia grew to hate her name / It sounded like a tiny man") are faultless.

"So Like Candy" is magnificent, the slurred dissection of a violent, shattered love told in a prowling drawl. "Playboy To A Man" is — at last — raucous, strutting and funny, an indictment of the ubiquitous medallion man.

Following this, a pair of songs which stand out. Costello's wife, ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan, pens the lyric on "Broken," a declaration of love so stark in its misted, devout mysticism, and so open-veined, it is breathtaking. And Costello hits perfection with a sparing, honest rejoinder, "Sweet Pear". Here, the artist's musicality and wordsmithing are to the point and touching. "'Til we're burned and scattered in the atmosphere / I am your stupid lover, your wretched groom."

We wind up with the idiosyncratic "Couldn't Call It Unexpected," a rag and bone look at life's oddity that's as glowing and unsettling as a Stanley Spencer painting. And once again, stomped upon and at last uplifted, we finish up Costello's willing victims, accepting the pratfalls for the perfection...


Select, June 1991

Glyn Brown reviews Mighty Like A Rose.


1991-06-00 Select page 72 clipping 01.jpg
Photo by Amelia Stein.

1991-06-00 Select cover.jpg 1991-06-00 Select page 72.jpg


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