Mighty Like a Rose

The Foaming Breakers of the Poisonous Surf: Elvis Costello’s ‘Mighty Like a Rose’ at 30

Elvis Costello’s Mighty Like a Rose is among his most unjustly maligned albums, making it ripe for reexamination.

Mighty Like a Rose
Elvis Costello
Warner Bros.
14 May 1991

Music is rife with artists whose stylistic changes invoke ire from fans. In 1965, Bob Dylan angered the purists when he plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival; Miles Davis controversially embraced a rock-leaning type of jazz fusion in the late 1960s; and in the early 1990s, Elvis Costello grew a beard and released Mighty Like a Rose

For Costello—who careened onto the punk/new wave scene in 1977 with coke bottle glasses, a slim-fitting suit, and attitude to spare as he sneered into the camera on the cover of debut LP My Aim Is True—long hair and a beard were tantamount to treason. Yet, there he was on the front of Mighty Like a Rose (released in May 1991), looking positively hirsute and strangely at peace. A couple of months prior, he was pictured on the cover of Musician magazine with Jerry Garcia, the headline stating: “The King of the Hippies and the Prince of Punks”. Was Costello finally—gasp!—happy?

Mighty Like a Rose was, to put it in overly simple terms, something of a sequel to his previous album, 1989’s Spike. Both albums signified (well, for the most part) a break from his celebrated backing band, the Attractions. They also embraced various previously unexplored sounds (brass-infused New Orleans jazz, Bacharach-influenced chamber pop, Spectorian Wall of Sound, etc.) and were dotted with songs co-written by his new best friend, Paul McCartney. While Spike may have raised a few eyebrows with hardcore fans, it’s important to note that it did contain his biggest US pop hit: the bouncy “Veronica”, which was co-penned by McCartney and lamented the toll that Alzheimer’s was taking on his grandmother. Costello was growing up, and—as he had done on previous albums, like Almost Blue (1981) and Imperial Bedroom (1982)—exploring new genres, leaving the punk and new wave labels behind. 

The truth is, Costello never seemed pleased to be lumped in with the punks. For all its nihilistic bile, My Aim Is True is just as much a tribute to artists like the Band and Randy Newman as the Clash. After all, he was even including Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” in his sets on the 1977 Live Stiffs tour. For every fan confounded by Costello’s embracing of seemingly incongruous musical styles, they should’ve seen the writing on the wall from the very beginning. 

That’s precisely why Mighty Like a Rose should have come as no surprise. Spike essentially predicted it, and Costello’s entire creative arc up to that point made it inevitable. And for all the palling around with Garcia, Costello was angrier than ever. During the making of the album at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, Operation Desert Shield was about to hurl the U.S. into a war in the Middle East. In the liner notes to the 2002 Rhino reissue of Mighty Like a Rose, Costello writes: “Needless to say, I did not imagine that I would be recording any of this record during wartime when I wrote it, although I was looking at the world without much affection. Many of my early records have been described as being ‘angry,’ a quality I think is exaggerated by a quirk in my vocal delivery. However, if you really want to hear an angry record, then this disc is for you”.

Co-produced by previous collaborators Kevin Killen and Mitchell Froom, Mighty Like a Rose begins with “The Other Side of Summer”, a dense, kitchen-sink style that foreshadows a good deal of the album. It’s a rich, power-pop Beach Boys pastiche that includes three keyboard players (including the legendary session pianist Larry Knechtel, who’s all over this album); Attractions drummer Pete Thomas (who plays on six of the album’s tracks and is the only member of Costello’s famed backing band to appear on the album); fuzz bass; lots of guitars; and sweet, Brian Wilson-esque harmonies that fly in the face of the song’s cynical words.

“Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions”, Costello sings, “A poor little schoolboy who said we don’t need no lessons / The rabid rebel dogs ransack the shampoo shop / The pop princess is downtown shooting up”. Less than two minutes into the album, Costello is taunting John Lennon, Roger Waters, David Bowie, and an as-yet-unidentified female pop singer. Southern California vibes never felt so chilling. 

The music itself can also provide plenty of sharp bite. Specifically, “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs are Taking Over)” is a clattering percussive mess reminiscent of some of Tom Waits’ more industrial-leaning songs (the appearance of frequent Waits collaborator Marc Ribot on guitar certainly helps). The end of the world is comically screamed out in Costello’s lyrics: “Any day now a giant insect mutation / Will swoop down and devour the white man’s burden”. He even takes a shot at his pal Sting—“Starting out with all of the sensitive ones / Better make like a fly if you don’t want to die / Look out, there goes Gordon!”—as session ace Jim Keltner’s drums and loops provide so much spine that he garners a co-writing credit. 

While Costello largely abandoned much of the sound he cultivated with the Attractions on this album, “How to Be Dumb” is inspired by his previous partners-in-crime in more ways than one. A rolling, Hammond organ-drenched multi-verse epic, the song is sonically reminiscent of “Man Out of Time” from Imperial Bedroom. Lyrically, it’s allegedly a nasty bit of hate mail directed at Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, who eventually became persona non grata with Costello after he wrote a novel, The Big Wheel (a veiled attack on Costello disguised as a work of fiction about a rock band on the road). Costello minces no words here, making it perhaps one of the top five angriest songs he’s ever written: “Now you’ve got yourself a brand new occupation / Every fleeting thought is a pearl / And beautiful people stampede to the doorway of the funniest fucker in the world”. 

While Costello front-loaded Mighty Like a Rose with some relatively traditional-sounding songs, it doesn’t take long for orchestral adornments and a more neo-classical approach to take hold. Again, these moves aren’t surprising for anyone familiar with the chamber pop inclinations of Imperial Bedroom, the lush, Billy Sherrill-produced strings of Almost Blue, or (especially) the heights Costello scaled with Spike just two years before. “All Grown Up” includes not just Ribot on cornet and Froom on chamberlain and portative organ, but rich orchestrations courtesy of Irish musician and composer Fiachra Trench, whose handiwork makes several appearances throughout the album. 

Costello’s father, famed big-band vocalist and musician Ross McManus steps in to play trumpet on the dramatic “Invasion Hit Parade”, which Costello described as part of a “Cold War Nostalgia” trilogy that also includes “Harpies Bizarre” and “After the Fall”. According to Costello, the first song is “a fantasy about a decent man who has been working in the resistance of a recently ‘liberated’ country, only to find that his new role is to be patronized and force-fed consumer goods and pop anthems”. Knechtel’s sublime harpsichord and tack piano, in addition to the imaginative and widescreen woodwinds orchestrations, bring “Harpies Bizarre”—a tale of a naive Eastern European girl falling under the spell of a man of the world—to levels of musical sophistication previously unexplored by Costello.

As for “After the Fall”, it provides sparse acoustic folk that recalls Leonard Cohen at his darkest. With its decidedly “anti-punk” approach, this song cycle almost brings to mind the conceptual bloat of progressive rock (which may be part of why the album was such a turn-off for fans). But, this kind of dismissal is unfortunate for anyone who refuses to dive into the album and give it multiple listens. The failure of Mighty Like a Rose to gain widespread approval can likely be blamed largely on short attention spans. This is an album to be explored and savored. 

While Costello’s songwriting partnership with McCartney garnered the Spike tracks “Veronica” and “Pads, Paws and Claws”, another pair of co-written tracks show up on Mighty Like a Rose. “Playboy to a Man” is, on the surface, a bit of a throwaway. However, as it crashes down following the Dirty Dozen Brass Band horns of “Interlude: Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 2” (perhaps the younger brother of “Stalin Malone” from Spike), it becomes a bit of a rockabilly breath of fresh air, bringing to mind the hip-shaking mirth of early-period Beatles in Hamburg. Knechtel, Froom, and Benmont Tench are credited with something called a “piano frenzy”, an apt description once you hear the song.

The flip side to this Costello/McCartney collaboration is the sobering, majestic “So Like Candy”. A breakup ballad of bottomless sadness, the lyrics are sometimes almost too maudlin for a wordsmith of Costello’s caliber (“What did I do to make her go? / Why must she be the one that I have to love? / So like candy”), but his vocal performance is achingly desperate, and the band clicks beautifully. (In the Rhino liner notes, Costello describes it as “perhaps the best ensemble performance on the album”, and I’m inclined to agree with him.) Jerry Scheff and T-Bone Wolk’s twin bass work, Ribot’s fragile guitar lines, and the beautifully sad Mellotron from Froom are just a few of the reasons why it all falls together so well. 

In addition to having two songs co-written by McCartney, Mighty Like a Rose also mirrors Spike in that it contains a song written by Costello’s then-wife, Cait O’Riordan. While she co-wrote the haunting ballad “Baby Plays Around” on the previous album, on Mighty Like a Rose, her dark tone poem “Broken” is one of the more haunting highlights on an album already filled to the brim with stylistic diversions. Knechtel’s harmonium gives the song a stirring gravitas, and the almost gothic lyrical content (“If I am blinded / I’ll have my voices to guide me / If they yet fled away / I’d bless the silence / But if you leave me / Then I am broken / And if I’m broken / Then only death remains”) stays with the listener long after the song ends.

Mighty Like a Rose closes with perhaps Costello’s most inspired vocal performance on the album, “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4”, which is aided in part by an arrangement that sounds like a cross between a brittle British waltz and a muted New Orleans funeral march. Described by Costello as an “agnostic prayer”, the song begins with lines that soar like poetry: “I saw a girl who’d found her consolation / She said ‘one day, my Prince of Peace will come / Above her head a portrait of her father / The wilted favor that he gave her still fastened to the frame”. Costello sings with a mix of sadness and perseverance; as the band soldiers on behind him (with instrumentation that includes horns, a calliope, a harmonium, and a toy piano), it sounds almost as if the man born Declan Patrick McManus—who apparently tried to use his real name for this album, but was convinced otherwise by the record label—was losing his mind a bit.

In the 2002 Rhino liner notes, Costello continues:

Drinking did have something to do with the extremities of my moods and less than elegant profile, but the wild hair and beard emerged during the first cold winter at our new Irish hillside home and became a fixture once I realized how it infuriated people. There was always a strong streak of perversity in my fashion choices. I had no idea that people would be so sentimental about the disappearance of my face.

In that sense, Mighty Like a Rose—easily the most unjustifiably hated album in Elvis Costello’s discography—is the ultimate rebellious statement from an artist who seemingly built his career on challenging preconceived notions and refusing the status quo. If you’ve been sleeping on this album, do yourself a favor and dig in. Its sonic pleasures are endless.