Jun 202011

Mighty Awful or Mighty Underrated? You Make the Call!

Mighty Awful or Mighty Underrated? You Make the Call!

This year marks the 20th anniversary of EC’s Mighty Like a Rose. I haven’t listened to it in, oh, I don’t know, 10 years or more. Maybe Mod, with his new-found respect for Mitchell Froom, will find it a heretofore neglected masterpiece. Maybe it will have more than the one song I remember thinking was any good. (Couldn’t Call It Unexpected.)  Let us rethink Mighty Like a Rose, and revisit Bearded Elvis of the summer of 1991. (I saw him twice–twice!–on that tour, with the Replacements opening.)

How To Be Dumb?

What was it about this record? The dodgy production? The ugly cover? The beard? The overwrought arrangements? The unwelcome presence of Marc Ribot? The undercooked songwriting? I mean, for instance, did it really take Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney to come up with “So Like Candy”? Let the critical reassessment/feeding frenzy begin!



  22 Responses to “Let’s Revisit Mighty Like a Turd

  1. I’m pretty sure I drove this album from my home the way Moses cast the snakes out of Isreal, or whatever it is Moses did. If so I will find a way to revisit it. I hear there’s a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike where a man can discretely listen to that album.

  2. I’ve always liked this record. Maybe it’s that Spike was my first Costello LP (had “the only flame in town” 45) and The Spike Tour was the first time I saw him live (with the Rude 5 band) and that he did lots of this stuff (and the Kojak stuff) at said performance. I have the unplugged from this era as a bootleg CD where he does The Other Side of Summer as a waltz. I’ll give it a play tomorrow and try to see it for what it is (and what it is not)

  3. Hurry Down Doomsday, a shot at Sting and U2 in the same song or am I just hearing things?

    How to be Dumb sounds to me like a swipe at REM (the shiny happy coda)

  4. tonyola

    I think you guys are overstating things a bit. Rose has a few good songs, but the overall effect is overproduced gimmickry applied to scattershot styles. There is density to the sound but not much power. It’s just too much work to pick the good gems out. I started losing interest in Costello’s output after Blood and Chocolate and with the possible exception of parts of Brutal Youth, I haven’t heard much since to draw me back.

    As far as his look, the best description of early Elvis I ever read was that he looked like Buddy Holly after drinking a can of STP Oil Treatment. Too bad he ended looking like a rabbi by the time of this album.

  5. misterioso, at the risk of being a complete snob and asshole, one of the difficulties in fairly and accurately assessing MLAT is that the listener must first have been a “true fan” of Great Costello, pretty much through the period that tonyola notes and definitely predating Punch the Clock. In other words, if one didn’t cut his or her teeth on the run of albums primarily with the Attractions and Nick Lowe behind the board it would be tough to understand how terrible MLAT is, or at least was.

    It’s kind of the converse of what it means to be a Red Sox fan who didn’t get into the team until 2004. Think how much sweeter that World Series breakthrough was for long-suffering fans. Sure the kid who came of age in 2004 got an experience of a lifetime, but the depth of pleasure cannot match that for fans who first experienced the deep pains. Likewise, I feel bad for the younger generation of Phillies fans, who now bitch about the occasional start by Rule 5 ulility man Michael Martinez but cannot fathon the thought of a Kevin Sefcik knocking on the door for a starting role and starting every Sunday in Terry Francona’s notorious Day of Rest Lineups.

    On the other hand, the likes of jungleland2 have lived a blessed life when it comes to missing out on the numbing disappointment of Spike and MLAT following hints at Costello’s downfall in the preceding years – the “chick album” Punch the Clock, the immediately regrettable Goodbye Cruel World, and the frighteningly bearded King of America (which about 10 years after its release I realized was a wholly vaild departure).

    I wanted to cut my ears off after MLAT, despite the fact that it had a few more songs I enjoyed than Spike. I was willing to excuse Spike as a misguided fling – “He’ll be back; he’s just got to sow some wild oats.” With MLAT, however, it was like when the high part kicks in on Hall and Oates’ “She’s Gone.” Unlike my first girlfriend, who left me for a woman, I couldn’t even take humorous satisfaction that I was her last-ditch effort. Costello didn’t leave the Attractions for some bold, new style of music, some new guy who would put his previous “guy” to shame. He was simply making his way through as many one-night stands as possible: a roll in the hay with Tom Waits’ musicians, a quickie from a member of the Wrecking Crew, an aborted May-December romance with McCartney. It hurt like hell, didn’t it?

  6. Ha ha ha. When I read this headline on Facebook during breakfast, I decided to toss the CD in my bag, and maybe give a listen during work. Then I looked at some of the song titles. “Harpies Bizarre”? “Georgie and Her Rival”? I had a terrible day yesterday, and I can’t imagine why I’d want to subject myself to such falderal* when I’m in a good mood.

    There’s a lot wrong with this album, but the main problem is that Costello has no talent for interesting arrangements and production (except for Imperial Bedroom), just like he has no talent for guitar-playing (except for Blood and Chocolate).

    That said, it’s the beard that gives this album it’s bad reputation. Nobody would remember it otherwise. I hate When I Was Cruel just as much (other crappy production job), but he pretty much looked like himself and fooled a lot of folks with that “I’m back to rockin'” hooey.

    * From the World English Dictionary
    — n
    1. a showy but worthless trifle
    2. foolish nonsense
    3. a nonsensical refrain in old songs

    I rest my case.

  7. Not sure why the RTH has such a problem with this CD. I gave it another listen this morning and it stand up among the 80’s 90’s and 00’s Costello recordings. Has more than a little bit of Imperial Bedroom in it (the orchestrations). Not as good as Trust or King , better than Punch, Goodbye. Less annoying production-wise than Spike. when EC tries to re-do “radio radio” every few years it sounds like parody (blood and chocolate, Brutal Youth) and he had not yet learned how to use The Attractions in another way (Useless Beauty)

    I honesly think you guys just hate the facial hair

  8. Also, I bet The Juliet Letters pissed off a lot of the Attractions die-hards when it came out. But no one bothers expending much bile on it now. Reason: no beard.

  9. I’d need to revisit this album, because apart from “The Other Side of Summer” & “So Like Candy” (both of which I like), I don’t remember a single other track. I like Ribot….liked the way he played on “Let Him Dangle”, one of the three songs I can remember from “Spike”, and on any of the live television appearances I’ve seen from the time (I’d given up going to see EC live by this time). HATED the beard!

  10. misterioso

    Interesting to see that MLAR has its defenders! I have removed my cd from the hermetically sealed vault where I also keep Dylan’s Live at Budokan and the Stones’ Dirty Work and have it with me today for a listening.

    My gut tells me it is probably not actually worse than Spike (which I convinced myself at the time that I liked) or even Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, which I find dull and duller, respectively. But I think Mod was right when he said that MLAR was the album that more or less closed the book on EC as an artist of interest.

    It can’t just be the beard, though: as Mod pointed out, he is bearded on King of America, which I have always thought was pretty great.

    More later.

  11. hrrundivbakshi

    The guitar nerd in me wants to know: does Mick Taylor get any scrumptious playing moments on that “Live at Budokan” album? I’ve always been curious to know if he was a rare bright spot on that legendarily shitty LP.

  12. I don’t think he’s on that one. He’s on the live album from the Infidels tour around ’84.


  13. misterioso

    Correct. Taylor’s contribution to the ’84 tour was not all that sterling: his brand of soloing was not well suited to Dylan, in my opinion, but that touring band in general was pretty dull. I think Real Live is ok, but not terribly inspiring; whereas Budokan is, well…

  14. I’ve got to pull out an digitize Dylan’s Live at Budokan album when I’m back. I used to find it fascinating in good-bad-almost good way. I haven’t even looked at the album’s spine in 20 years.

  15. That was the summer tour with the Replacement, eh? I was so discouraged with Costello at the time I didn’t even attempt to acquire MLAT before the show, very unusual for me.

    The Mats were OK (opening for other people isn’t good on them) but Costello was awful! I remember nothing about the songs he played until the encore. I was a little surprised he came back with so little applause, but he ripped through 4-5 goodies from 77-79 just to prove he could. Thanks, Elvis, but what was with the first hour and a half?

  16. My history with EC is one of retro. Never one to buy into greatest hits packages, my first EC purchase was the Ryko version of My Aim Is True (I liked the cover). I fell in love with that record in the mid-90s and decided that this Elvis character was worth pursuing. I think from there on, I alternated buying his latest stuff (with Burt Bacharach) and his earlier stuff. Spike and Turd fell in there somehwere. I remember being indifferent to them at worst and sort of liking them at best.

    I never got to experience the downfall of EC that many of you did in the early 80s. I was introduced to genre-hopping/anything goes EC from my introduction to him. I never really expected anything particular from him, so everything was a mix.

    I actually like Punch The Clock okay, for some reason. It is certainly dated, but I think I have a weird thing for that type of production. I can’t really make a case for it other than my perverse sense about bad music production from the 80s. I am indifferent to Goodbye Cruel World, but I think EC is too.

    My problem with Cruel is just length. It’s too damn long. It makes for trying listens.

    I like everything from Delivery Man on.

    Beards are of no influence on my ears.


  17. Saw the Mats open for Tom Petty around that time as well. They played to the 200 people who got there early to see them (in a place that held 13,000). It was 95 degrees outside and sunny – not their natural habitat. Slim wore a dress. They did “Hey Good Lookin'” and then a reggae version of “I’ll Be You”. We had grass seats and were 100 yards from them but you could tell how unhappy they were to be there

  18. BigSteve

    Ok I went and listened to the thing just now, for the first time in a while, and it sounds fine. Maybe not one of his best efforts, but certainly not the turd of RTH legend. The Other Side of Summer definitely sounds like a solid single. I like the rhythmic workout Hurry Down Doomsday — it reminds me of Lover’s Walk on Trust. The McCartney songs are good, especially So Like Candy, and I’m no McCartney advocate.

    The band is terrific, essentially the same band as on King of American with the addition of Ribot. Any album with Jim Keltner on the drums deserves an open mind. To be honest this doesn’t sound all that different from an Attractions record, except for the absence of a few blasts like I Hope You’re Happy Now.

    Seriously I don’t see how he could have kept making Get Happy over and over. Wouldn’t everyone have complained if he had done that? Ok the horn section interlude doesn’t do anything for me, but I’m in favor of artists branching out. Blame this album on the 80s if you like, but it’s certainly better than a lot of stuff that was coming out at that time. I’m fanatically pro-beard, but I don’t need to see him to like this record.

    And this statement from the Mod is way off: “In other words, if one didn’t cut his or her teeth on the run of albums primarily with the Attractions and Nick Lowe behind the board it would be tough to understand how terrible MLAT is, or at least was.”

    I think having been a rabid EC with the Attractions fan may explain the negative reaction of some people, but it certainly doesn’t offer an explanation for how “terrible” it IS.

  19. Funny, at the time I had the problem with Brutal Youth because he had stopped trying new things and had “given up” by going back to the Attractions and doing a by-the-numbers record. The picture of EC back to short hair, glasses and 200lbs of pancake makeup in order to look like it’s 1978 was more upsetting than the long hair and beard of MLTR. Again, I got on the EC train late (in 1988)

    Tomorrow, “the Juliet Letters” anyone?

  20. The experience of having been a fan of EC & the Attractions in their time does not necessarily mean you will think MLAT IS terrible, but it will provide one the CAPABILITY of reaching that conclusion. Please don’t confuse what I was getting at.

  21. misterioso

    MLAT, song by song:

    1. The Other Side of Summer: not entirely unappealing, but trying much too hard to be clever and the arrangement is way too busy.

    2. Hurry Down Doomsday: I have no idea what EC was aiming for here. An absolute mess that falls flat. Is this supposed to be some sort of joke?

    3. How to Be Dumb: Feels like it’s reaching for some sort of Imperial Bedroom-like grandeur but does not succeed because EC forgot to include a good song. By the middle eight/bridge I have lost interest.

    4. All Grown Up: This is one of the songs I remember sort of liking. An attractive melody. I’m okay with it.

    5. Invasion Hit Parade: Fussy, overwrought, annoying chorus, and geez, does every song on this record have the faux-Oliver’s Army/Dancing Queen piano?

    6. Harpies Bizarre: Clearly, again, he is trying for something here that fails to materialize. It shouldn’t matter that I have no idea what the song is about—since I don’t know what some of his great songs are supposed to be about, either, really—but this song just lies there and doesn’t move.

    7. After the Fall: Maybe it is the Spanish guitar that bugs me—like the song is auditioning for a place on “More Songs of Love and Hate.” At least it is stripped down enough that the production is uncluttered. This puts it in the plus column, relative to most of the other songs.

    8. Georgie and Her Rival: Ugh. Terrible production, a melody that seems to be trying to recapture whatever it was about Veronica that made it work. On the plus side: manages to stay under 3 ½ minutes.

    9. So Like Candy: I think I managed to like this at the time, but I can’t see why now. “She seemed to sweet to me / I was mistaken / Oh no not that again / But that’s so like Candy.” Sorry, no. It just doesn’t add up to anything and isn’t interesting while it isn’t doing so. We could blame Paul, I guess, but that doesn’t seem quite fair.

    10. Interlude: Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 2: Well, anyway it is brief.

    11. Playboy to a Man: Perhaps everything that is wrong with the record is wrong with this: appalling production, overwrought singing and vocal arrangements, totally underwritten and unengaging song. Embarrassing.

    12. Sweet Pear: 30 seconds into this song I find myself wondering if it’s over yet. Anyway, I hope he’s come up with some other fruity endearment for Diane Krall. On the plus side: there’s a Sousaphone on this track and no Marc Ribot!

    13. Broken: I had completely forgotten this song. I think this was a reasonable response. Maybe it would have worked with the Brodsky Quartet. Seriously.

    14. Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4: Maybe it’s just the Dylan-esque title, but I always liked this song. It shares many of the faults of the album but somehow or other it rises above them—a nice melody and the peculiar instrumentation seems to work with the song rather than against it. Maybe it helps that it is the last song.

    Overall, a very weak record. Any worse than Goodbye Cruel World? Perhaps not. Deserving of the special ire it arouses? Hard to say. But, geez, what a mess. Back into the vault with it, to be exhumed in another 20 years, if cds are still around then.

  22. Excellent write up, and I appreciate you reminding me what each song is like without me having to listen to them.

    I’m sticking with So Like Candy, though. I do think that’s worthy of the Costello canon.

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