Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello both have new albums produced by Mitchell Froom, and each offers a generous 14 new songs that prove passion can coexist with intelligent craftsmanship. Thompson's Rumor and Sigh (Capitol) is a career landmark, his best effort since 1985's Across a Crowded Room. Costello's Mighty Like a Rose (Warner Bros.) isn't as controlled or as consistent as his recent Spike and King of America, but it is still marked by a restless intelligence that's all too rare in pop today.
Thompson and Costello are two of the very best lyricists in rock-and-roll now, but they draw on different sources for their new albums.
Thompson's Rumor and Sigh recalls Randy Newman's 12 Songs: Both albums create a gallery of maladjusted young lovers, each with his own warped perspective on the world. The challenge for the listener is to remember that the voice in each song is that of the character and not the author — in fact, the contrast between the characters' attitudes and the author's presumed opinions is what gives the songs their kick.
Costello's Mighty Like a Rose, by contrast, recalls Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. Both albums employ flights of apocalyptic surrealism as the only appropriate way to describe a world falling apart; both albums use vicious examples of the put-down song to condemn not so much a particular rich girl but her whole way of life. Costello's new album isn't as successful as Dylan's, but at least he's playing in the same ballpark, a claim few others can make. Just as they did when Dylan picked up an electric guitar, some critics are complaining that Costello's torrents of words don't add up to anything. Even the smallest amount of concentration will prove that's not true.
Richard Thompson: Rumor and Sigh
Thompson's new album begins with "Read About Love," whose character is a 15-year-old boy who can't get any information about sex from his parents or teachers and so turns to the pages of Cosmopolitan and Hustler. When he finally gets a girl into bed, he is bewildered by the results: "Why don't you moan and sigh?" he sings to a grungy, bouncy bit of Celtic-rock. "I do everything I'm supposed to do." The anger and fear in his voice help us understand his predicament better than any outside perspective ever could.
The song is typical of Thompson's methodology on "Rumor and Sigh." He takes us inside the twisted minds of people who receive pain and pass it on, who make the most dubious of choices, and he helps us understand how they ended up that way. The folk-rock behind the lyrics is the punchiest, catchiest music Thompson has written, and it gives his characters the brash assurance that their worldviews are perfectly reasonable.
The captivating organ figure (played by Froom) on the first single, "I Feel So Good (I'm Gonna Break Somebody's Heart Tonight)," has the cocky strut implied by the title. The song's character ("old enough to sin but too young to vote") finds the connection between pleasure and inflicting pain the most natural thing in the world, and the driving momentum of the song makes that attitude as compelling as it is horrifying. A similar character abandons his girlfriend to the "Grey Walls" of a mental institution.
The album's best narrative is "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," the story of 21-year-old James Adie, who believes there's nothing better than a vintage motorbike and a red-headed girl. One gets the feeling that this is one character Thompson might actually agree with, for he sings the song with great sympathy to an intricate Celtic folk figure played solely on his acoustic guitar.
Many listeners, of course, admire Thompson the guitarist even more than Thompson the songwriter, and they are rewarded with the methodically uncoiling Celtic-raga-jazz-rock lines that are his trademark. An especially memorable guitar figure represents the ominous hint of mortality described as the "Mystery Wind" on the album's best song, a worthy sequel to such Thompson milestones as "Wall of Death" and "Ghosts in the Wind."
Richard Thompson performs Aug. 7 at Wolf Trap.
Elvis Costello: Mighty Like a Rose
Costello's album opens with "The Other Side of Summer," an apt title for a song that turns the Beach Boys' nature odes inside out. The cheery melody and high male harmonies are still there, but Costello's nasal vocal gives a nasty twist to lyrics that describe nature falling apart. Instead of earnest reports from the Amazon, Costello adopts the Dylanesque hyperbole of cataloguing damage "from the foaming breakers of the poisonous surf ... to the burning forests in the hills of Astroturf." He connects ecological collapse to class divisions ("the automatic gates close up between the shanties and the palace") and escapist entertainment ("the blowtorch amusements, the voodoo chalice").
This practice of turning pop-music conventions on their head has been Costello's stock in trade. On this new album, he targets a wide range of pop forms, from ornate arrangements to lush pop string charts to Beatlesque art-rock to industrial noise. There are as many misses as hits, but the hits are so much better than the recent releases from most of pop's literary wannabes that Mighty Like a Rose stands out in the crowd. The misses include "Hurry Down Doomsday" (a bad imitation of Tom Waits's recent junkyard music), "All Grown Up" (a string-sodden ballad that takes easy swipes at a jaded rich girl) and "Harpies Bizarre" (a music-hall arrangement with opaque lyrics).
The hits include two more products of the fruitful collaboration between Costello and Paul McCartney: "So Like Candy" has a great Beatles-soul melody that enables Costello to imitate McCartney's Little Richard imitation, and "Playboy to a Man" is a bouncy popabilly number that carries a vicious attack on a self-styled ladies' man. "How to Be Dumb," a successor to Dylan's "Idiot Wind," attacks pop music directly, taking aim at "all you professional liars ... masquerading as pale powdered genius." "Sweet Pear" has a lovely melody (fleshed out by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band) to go with one of Costello's rare confessions of genuine affection.
Best of all is "Invasion Hit Parade," the first important pop song about the "New World Order." The singer is apparently a shantytown resident of Panama City, and he complains, "The liberation forces make movies of their own, playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned ... with one head for business and another for good looks, until they started arriving with their rubber aprons and butcher's hooks." With Costello's dad playing martial trumpet against herky-jerky rock-and-roll, the cumulative effect is likely to be one of the high points in pop music this year.
Elvis Costello plays the Merriweather Post Pavilion June 16.