Elvis Costello Countdown #70: “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4”

Considering that it came on the heels of it and had the same adventurous approach to assembling musicians and recording, 1991’s Mighty Like The Rose often gets compared unfavorably to 1989’s Spike, which received almost universal acclaim. I think this is because Mighty is a darker record, both in sound and content. Even though Spike had some downbeat material, it generally consisted of bright sounds and punchy rhythms. The follow-up has a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of feel to it, and that can be tough for some people to sit through.

As someone who tends to be drawn to depressive types of music, however, I feel like Mighty Like A Rose is way overlooked. Those people who only know the anthologized stuff like “The Other Side Of Summer” or “So Like Candy” are missing out on some great album cuts, including this track which closes out the album in fascinating fashion. Elvis clearly thinks highly of it, as he often performs it in concert by singing it to the crowd without the benefit of a microphone, a show-stopper every time.

On Mighty Like A Rose, the song takes on a circus quality, aided by the woozy horns of Marc Ribot and Jerry Scheff and the colorful keyboards of Heartbreaker Benmont Tench. Jim Keltner keeps a staggering waltz beat, while Elvis bangs away at a toy piano to boost the surreality of it all. Upon this interesting bed of music he hangs a set of lyrics about the age-old conundrum of figuring out how to fully enjoy life when we are burdened with the knowledge of our eventual death.

The first-verse story of the girl expecting some sort of divine reunion with her dead father might be mocked by some, but the “lucky goon” narrator warns that a time will come for us all when faith in a higher power might be the only way to combat the gnawing fear of losing loved ones. The final two lines are as profound as it gets: “Please don’t let me fear anything I cannot explain/I can’t believe, I’ll never believe in anything again.” They speak to the difficulty of maintaining faith while not letting irrational notions dominate your life.

At least that’s my take. I know there are probably others, because “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4” is the kind of a song that doesn’t provide easy answers, that makes you think. In that way it’s the poster child for the underrated charms to be found all over the difficult but rewarding Mighty Like A Rose.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)


(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


2 Comments on “Elvis Costello Countdown #70: “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4””

  1. Mike says:

    Dude, c’mon, this masterpiece is top 10 material, maybe even top 5. That it didn’t even make your top 50 is mind boggling! Also, “This Town” and “Only Flame” should not even be on the list. That said, keep it up, this is all subjective and highly enjoyable!

  2. countdownkid says:

    Mike, I like the fans who go off the beaten path for their favorites, especially those who reward the slower material. Indeed, listening to it again as I wrote the post, I found it hard to believe that there are that many songs better than it. But I love “This Town,” and I think “Only Flame” is a perfect piece of pop, which is no small achievement. And looking at the songs coming up, it’s really hard to take any off there. Glad you’re enjoying this so much. I am too.

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