Two of contemporary rock's top singer-songwriters have just released new albums. Elvis Costello and the Attractions with Goodbye Cruel World (Columbia, FC 39429) and Bruce Springsteen with Born In The U.S.A. (Columbia, QC 38653). Both records, however, fall short of the artists' usual standards, sounding a sour note amid the recent flurry of noteworthy summer releases.
First of all, sub-par Costello is miles ahead of, say, top-drawer Huey Lewis. Still, Goodbye Cruel World is the first all-new E.C. LP with more than a couple of songs that could be labeled, by Costello's measure, throwaways.
The album mixes the moods of Elvis' previous two albums, the sleepy Imperial Bedroom of 1982 and the spunky Punch The Clock of last summer. Side one is a solid collection of songs, starting with "The Only Flame In Town," done here in a percolating uptempo style with Daryl Hall singing the high harmonies; on Costello's just-finished solo tour, he did this tune as a slow torch song with a country feel.
The first side also includes the bluesey "Inch By Inch"; "Worthless Thing," an attack on television and how it's trivialized our culture and our lives; and the ethereal ballad "Love Field" in waltz time.
Side two, though, is where the album goes snafu. The lead-off tune, a cover of the old Farnell Jenkins tune "I Wanna Be Loved," indicates that we're entering filler territory. Most of the other tracks on the second side — "The Comedians," "Joe Porterhouse," "Sour Milk-Cow Blues," "The Great Unknown" and "The Deportees Club" — contain interesting snatches of melody or lyric that only Costello could come up with, but generally these songs fall flat. Only the bitter finale, "Peace In Our Time," is truly up to snuff.
What bogs down the lesser songs (and even, to some extent, a few of the better compositions) is Costello's tendency here to be complex for complexity's sake. He has been near the top of his field for his ability to develop complicated musical and lyrical ideas without indulging himself. Here, alas, he's gone overboard. Never before has he seemed to cram so many syllables into his melody lines; as a result, his vocals often sound harried and rushed.
Also, chord changes and instrumental riffs from the keyboardist are tossed in for no apparent reason other than to spice things up. (Presumably regular attraction Steve Nieve plays the keyboards, though the jacket credits no keyboardist but a certain Maurice Worm for "random racket." Whoever, it sure sounds like Nieve.)
Costello works hard for the money, and maybe that's the problem. He might work too hard. He puts out a new album approximately every 10 months, and when he isn't in the studio, he's on the road. Goodbye Cruel World might have been a better record if Elvis had held off while he came up with a few more quality songs. That way we would be spared the throwaways. After all, for Costello it's worth waiting an extra half-year or so.
Conversely, we've had to wait four years for Bruce Springsteen's first new album with the E Street Band. Reportedly he and his group cut nearly 200 tracks during that time, and at last Bruce has assembled 12 songs that he's deemed worthy of being on an album bearing his name. Unfortunately, Born In The U.S.A. was hardly worth the wait.
Springsteen has been idolized and mythologized, mostly by males his age — particularly male rock critics, who do the mythologizing — for at least two reasons: First, he comes off as a combination of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, and indeed, at his best Bruce has turned out some terrific music. And second, he has represented the wild free life promised in classic rock and roll. Cars, girls, open highways, music blaring on the radio.
But the shtick, like Bruce himself, is getting old. At 34, Springsteen sounds ridiculous singing about emotional problems that may charitably be called adolescent. It's as if he's become a prisoner of his own dumb myth.
That's just part of the problem with this album. Born In The U.S.A. has been knocked for being such a down record, filled with losers and cons and a bleak view of modern America. But if Springsteen wants to write about being down, that's his choice. His mood might even be tolerable if only he wrote about it with a bit more panache than he shows here.
Time and again he throws up a gray background of repetitious three-chord tunes, and tacks on plain flat statements like "I ain't nothing but tired, man, I'm just tired and bored with myself," "I'm sick and tired of your setting me up ... just to knock-a, knock-a, knock-a me down," and "This whole world is out there just trying to score, I've seen enough, I don't want to see anymore."
Despite these flaws, the LP isn't a complete bust, thanks to a few strong moments — the churning arrangement of "Cover Me" (don't ask about the lyrics), the rockabilly jump of "Working On The Highway," the subdued intensity of "I'm On Fire," the heartfelt emotion of "Bobby Jean," the hooks of the melody and synthesizer riff in the smash single "Dancing In The Dark," and the closing tune "My Hometown," which is almost like a Raymond Carver story set to music.
The tight construction of "My Hometown" is the sort of thing that distinguished Springsteen's solo album of 1982, Nebraska. That has been almost completely abandoned on Bored — uh — Born In The U.S.A.
Four years for this?