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The return of the mighty Elvis Costello


Elvis Costello.

Warner Brothers.


ELVIS COSTELLO, the most acerbic voice of post-punk alternative music, is middle-aged. He also sports a beard on the cover of his new album, Mighty Like a Rose. Last year's release of Girls Girls Girls reminds one just how long Costello has been angry with the world: The album covers work between 1976-1986. Can he still sound caustic and desperate without sounding bitter and redundant?

Yes. With the help of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and some beautiful orchestration, Costello sounds different. Not his vocals or lyrics, but the sound behind it. This variation on a theme also attests to the collaboration between Costello and Paul McCartney.

In the first single from the album, "The Other Side of Summer," he sings: "A teenage girl is crying 'cos she don't look like a million dollars/ So help her if you can/ 'Cos she don't seem to have the attention span." These lyrics don't sound any different than the lyrics for Spike (well, maybe the songs aren't as angry as "Tramp the Dirt Down" was), but Costello is singing over a melody that is reminiscent of the Beach Boys.

"The Other Side of Summer" sets a rather serious tone for the album with its environmental message: It ends "And kiss `goodbye' to the earth/ The other side of summer." Costello, however, follows the song with "Hurry Down Doomsday," whose title belies its comical nature. The song's subtitle is "The Bugs Are Taking Over."

This is a fun song. Each chorus ends with Costello, more talking than singing, shouting "You want to scream and shout my little waxen lout/ Hurry down doomsday the bugs are taking over." The cut has all the drama and comedy of a 1950s sci-fi flick as well as a litany of things Costello will forget that rivals the list of things John Lennon said he didn't believe in on "God."

Maybe this album does not sound tired because Costello seems to have so much fun on it. In addition to songs like "Hurry Down Doomsday," there are cuts like the 22-second "Interlude: Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 2" (Numbers 1 and 3 are not on the album, but Number 4 is the last track.) This acoustic piece features a rich sound from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band that seems to summarize all that was musical about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

The liner notes are a hoot, too. The notes for "Invasion Hit Parade" read: "Big Stupid Guitar and little foolish organ: E.C." while Mitchell Froom and Marc Ribot play the so-called "industrial jack-ass" on "How to be Dumb."

Some of the songs on the album are good because they are pretty -- plain and simple. "All Grown Up" is quiet, mournful and heartfelt, with a string and woodwind arrangement providing the perfect accompaniment. "Georgie and Her Rival" is typical, energetic, entertaining Elvis Costello, much like "This Town" from Spike.

Costello's collaboration with McCartney, which produced songs like "Veronica" from Spike and "You Want Her Too" from McCartney's Flowers in the Dirt, continues to influence Costello's work. The two penned a pair of songs for this album, and the song "Sweet Pear" opens with a riff obviously borrowed from the Beatles' work in the late 1960s.

One could draw interesting parallels between Costello and David Bowie. Both have produced wonderful discographies during their careers, as evidenced by their recent retrospectives, but Bowie seems to have faded. His recent work pales in comparison to the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album.

Costello, on the other hand, continues to release interesting and original material. Mighty Like a Rose is not an exception. The album has a number of strong cuts and, more importantly, the material is fresh. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the orchestration only strengthen the album's appeal.

One final note: Mighty Like a Rose is not the pop album that Spike was, but that is hardly criticism.