http://assets-s3.rollingstone.com/assets/images/album_review/4fffb828da8bf37c0e4cf778c4b9fdfb3fed6155.jpg Mighty Like a Rose

Elvis Costello

Mighty Like a Rose

Warner Bros.
Rolling Stone: star rating
Community: star rating
5 3 0
May 16, 1991

In time you can turn these obsessions into careers," sings Elvis Costello on Mighty Like a Rose. This is true. Almost a decade and a half after emerging as punk's brightest angry young man, Costello faces a musical midlife crisis. Will his caustic anger, once so cathartic and cleansing, congeal into bitterness? Is he stuck romanticizing his pain, or will he break through to some hard-won understanding and resolution?

The usual pall of despair hangs over Mighty Like a Rose. Alison, that slut, still haunts every song, in various guises, deceitful and elusive as ever. Costello responds with contempt, longing, anger, pity, condescension and the inevitable self-doubt. "The Other Side of Summer," which is reminiscent of the Beach Boys, alludes to the album's underlying emotional tone — the glass is always half-empty. Even when the singer gets the girl, as in "Sweet Pear," he wonders how long before she dumps her "stupid lover."

Signs of healing, however, do appear amid the howling. While the bleak story lines still revolve around bad relationships and indict others for the singer's own problems, the music reveals a more encouraging subtext. This is Costello's most ambitious and adventurous music in ages. The combination of sophisticated melodies — executed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's brilliant orchestration — and Costello's vocals provides a counterpoint of soulful vitality that challenges the darkness of the lyrics. "How to Be Dumb" recalls electric Dylan filtered through late Beatles; piano arpeggios and "Don't Let Me Down"-style guitar frame "Sweet Pear"; "Invasion Hit Parade" is a terrific antisingle whose aim is indeed true. Costello picked up some of these tricks from his odd-couple collaboration with Paul McCartney, whose emotional dynamics are the opposite of Costello's.

The real breakthrough on the album, however, occurs in what may be the most moving song of Costello's career, the unexpectedly compelling "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4." Lyrics and music converge as the heart-rendingly gorgeous melody moves to its final epiphany. "Please don't let me fear anything that I cannot explain," Costello sings with the passion of a man on the verge of self-discovery. "I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again."

Album Review Main Next


Community Guidelines »
loading comments

loading comments...


Sort by:
    Read More
    Around the Web
    Powered By ZergNet
    Daily Newsletter

    Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

    Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
    marketing partners.


    We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

    Song Stories

    “San Francisco Mabel Joy”

    Mickey Newbury | 1969

    A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

    More Song Stories entries »