Don't Be Fooled: Elvis Costello Is Still Bittersweet

Article excerpt

WHO is this bearded imposter claiming to be Elvis Costello?

Could this grizzly dude in wire rims be the same trendsetter who, sidestepping the spiked hairdos of the punks, scrubbed his face, slicked back his hair, slipped on his thick plastic glasses, and glamorized the nerd back in the early '80s?

If his exterior has changed, don't worry: The witty, scathing English singer's new album, "Mighty Like a Rose," is both cutting and sweet.

From the pretty, melodic first track (released as a single), "The Other Side of Summer," to the merry-go-round sound of the adorable "Georgie's Rival," to the slow, haunting "Broken," Costello's album resembles thorny roses: Bursts of fragrant sounds atop the sharp, barbing attacks on hypocrisy, pop culture, and modern love.

"Rose" is Costello's best album yet in his 15-year, 13-album career; but it is tempting to make that judgment each time he puts out a new album. His last one, "Spike," proved Costello could do more than write perfect pop songs like "Veronica." He could write mellow jazz and political ballads like the one that criticized the politics of Margaret Thatcher for kissing babies in public and slashing welfare programs behind closed doors.

Costello has toned down his politics in this album, aiming instead at the hypocrisy of one of pop-music's heroes, the Beatles's John Lennon. "Wasn't it a millionaire who sang 'Imagine No Possessions? Costello asks in "The Other Side of Summer." (Rankling a few fans, Costello said in a New York Times interview that he thought "Imagine" was one of Lennon's worst songs. …