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.”