The thing some people like and some people don't like about Elvis Costello is that he's a dabbler. The one-time punk's angriest young literary man has gone on to forge a career of astounding diversity, doing everything from country music to fuzzy garage rock to laidback balladry to even, god forbid, an opera. I personally love Costello's never-idle mind, even if all of his career spins don't quite pan out (the opera, no thank you). Costello is always recognizably himself, even when trying on different genres. One of Costello's albums that is often overlooked when his career is considered is 1991's "Mighty Like A Rose," which is an album of violent, almost dizzying eclecticism.
"Mighty Like A Rose" was the first time I fell hard for Costello, and perhaps that's why I hold it so dear. It's full of verbose wit and rage like the best of his work, while musically it careens about like a drunken sailor, with blasting guitars, horns, calliope, flutes, even maracas. "If you really want to hear an angry record," Costello writes in the liner notes, "then this one is for you." He had an untamed long-haired, bearded look around the time of this album which makes him look like some kind of demented prophet coming from the other side. The lyrics reflect this new look -- the first lines on the album are "The sun struggles up another beautiful day / and I felt glad in my own suspicious way." So the tone is set, as "Rose" swings between malice and mourning. There's a kind of lurching energy to "Rose" that reminds me a bit of Tom Waits.
"The Other Side of Summer" is a Beach Boys song wrung through a dark wringer, sneering instead of crooning. Men and women recur throughout "Rose" playing cruel games with each other. In "Harpies Bizarre" the girl is crushed by the worldly stranger. In "After the Fall" she has her revenge. Two songs co-written with Paul McCartney feature here; in their "Playboy to a Man" it's romance as jaunty battle of the sexes; Costello yelps, "now you're standing there in your underwear / now you know just how it feels for her."
If "Rose" were just meanness it wouldn't have much appeal, but what I also like are the moments of tenderness like the brittle "Sweet Pear" or "So Like Candy," and the razor sharp wit of songs like the over-the-top rant "How To Be Dumb" or "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," which is about exactly what it sounds like.
What I'd have to call one of my top 5 Elvis Costello songs of all closes out the record on a note of resounding grace -- "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" which reels about like a carnival from an alternate universe, a catalogue of surrealistic imagery. There's a fine sleight of hand here as Costello sings of "shadows of regret" and broken hearts, then reveals himself as a character in the song -- "well I'm the lucky goon / who composed this tune / from birds arranged on the high wire." He ends with what he later called a kind of "agnostic prayer," a beautiful moment when all the anger and frustration of the album ends with a glimpse of hope -- "Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain / I can't believe, I'll never believe in anything again."