When I saw Elvis Costello at the Bridge concert last fall, it blew me away. I wasn't really a big fan of his, but there he was with just his voice and an acoustic guitar (or, at times, a piano), giving such a powerful performance that he stole the show from all the other artists — including the event's host, the revitalized Neil Young.
I was hooked.
The reason I mention this is that two of the songs Costello performed at the Bridge concert are tracks from his recently released Mighty Like a Rose. The solo performance of those tunes was compelling enough to turn me into a fan. A big fan. Unfortunately, the album wouldn't have done the same, had I heard it first.
The problem with the album is the addition of far too many instruments. The passion and power of the concert version of the lilting piano ballad, "Couldn't Call It Unexpected #4," is dulled by the addition of horns, a banjo and several keyboards. Instead of enhancing the song, these additions give a carnival sound to what was perfect with just the piano and vocals. Many of the other tracks on the album suffer from the same over-instrumentation as well, in addition to some musical overwriting.
However, Mighty Like a Rose is, despite this, a very good album. Opening with a sarcastic look at the ecology and a decaying civilization, the album progresses from Costello's familiar, venomous sarcasm and wit to a mature and more frankly emotional and confessional tone.
Closing forcefully with "Couldn't Call It Unexpected," the album represents new terrain for a man who has made a career out of spiteful cynicism. The last words, "Please don't let me fear anything I can't explain / I can believe I'll never believe anything again," is powerful stuff, even with the extra instrumentation.
Costello shows us he's still adept at twisted wit and sarcasm. But he also — for the first time — shows us that he's not afraid to admit that fear of death and the matters of love are heavy on his mind these days. He's not as young and angry anymore, but he's still got some things to say and he knows how to say them well — even if he feels compelled to prove he's grown up by tacking on some string arrangements, horns and extra keyboards.
In essence, Mighty Like a Rose is composed of what are mostly great songs. But I'm willing to bet they will sound even better when he plays them in concert at Berkeley at the end of the month — without all the studio trappings.