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...