Back in May, while discussing his musical tastes with USA Today, Randy Newman noted that though he knew he was supposed to like Elvis Costello, he found him, of all things, lazy. Now Newman is no exemplar of energy himself: quick calculation reveals that in seven years Costello has released 10 albums to Newman's three. He's got a point, though, if we read "lazy" as meaning slapdash rather than unproductive. The very precocity that on his 1977 debut made Costello an instant rock-and-roll paragon is now threatening to steal his thunder, as he chases after neoclassic grand gestures with a rocker's urge for combat. In his career of punching the clock the heft of his ambition has usually bowled over niggling particulars — like, say, "Why doesn't this song mean anything?" or "Are words this busy best served by settings this busy?" On Goodbye Cruel World (Columbia), Costello's latest and possibly his worst, he acts out his own flaws so vividly that the album works as a tutorial for those overawed by this often wonderful, always complicated singer/songwriter.
Never before has Costello's rock and roll seemed a strained, sequestered taste. This isn't just a matter of his jack-of-all-trades approach, his perception of rock and roll as one of many musical genres rather than a moral imperative. It's a matter of chops. Costello once drove "Pump It Up" with the thinnest edge of guitar; here, uptempo ravers like "Sour-Milk Cow Blues" and "The Deportees Club" substitute wind-tunnel hysteria for rhythmic propulsion, histrionics for nuance. And the clattering arrangements mirror the convoluted lyrics — his nth unwarranted kiss-off to some lucky woman in "Sour-Milk Cow Blues," his unsympathy note to an American exile in Italy in "The Deportees Club." Costello has come up with non-sequiturs before ("TKO," "Five Gears in Reverse," "From a Whisper to a Scream," for starters), songs in which he gets off by rifting on the title catch phrase. But the needless knots of Goodbye Cruel World suggest that his love of words is merely a diverting shell — the adolescent cleverness of someone afraid to speak clearly. His indulgence in double talk used to turn up duplicities in love's discourse that indicted the discourse itself while submitting to its seductive power; his dense cascades of melody did the same for stolen pop riffs while setting up an extended argument with the lyrics. This strategy has neither deepened nor broadened: he's still writing guarded putdowns and guilty tributes like clockwork, though now his romantic fatalism sounds like a reflex, as if it came with the turf. What's harrowing is that on Goodbye Cruel World, it's exactly those formal exercises ("The Only Flame in Town," "Home Truth," "Room Without a Number," "Love Field") that provide the record's surest pleasures.
Costello's compulsive reliance on the pun is telling. Puns, after all, are fanciful stopgaps to blur meaning; they're usually independent of the subject; they don't reach out to a listener so much as subjugate him. For Costello, songwriting is a means of showing not what you feel but how much you know — hence the verbal twists and melodic quotes. And the knowledge he conveys is knowledge of the pop process. (Scenario: it is 1999. Elvis has just released his 35th record, Truss. His ongoing semipopularity has compelled him to augment his income by moonlighting as a game-show host for, of course, Name That Tune. However, the format of the show is a little different now: E.C. spins only his own records, and contestants — published rock critics only, please — have to guess the original sources.) Costello's gamesmanship, the sense that his every move, from throwaway B-side to interview comment, is going down in pop's little black history hook, is notorious, and his continuing commitment to pop form remains impressive. But as he grinds away at ideas that have lost their freshness (the punful pyrotechnic putdown of "The Only Flame in Town," his continued loathing of sex in "Love Field"), he sounds automatic, the supreme hack churning out his variations on a theme by rote.
Songs do not constitute the whole of musical performance, but even if these were good songs, their execution would reveal Costello's inability to direct his band. After Get Happy!!, he shifted from wanting to be the world's most articulate rock-and-roller to wanting to be the world's wiliest and most eclectic singer/songwriter. Since that record, drummer Pete Thomas has played with less savvy wallop, and keyboardist Steve Nieve has added to his storehouse of chatty fills as if he had to compete with the bandleader's lyrics. Meanwhile, Costello's guitar has disappeared, and Nieve's contrivances — chiming, telegraphing, finally annoying have become the group's signature: hyped-up salon music for someone pacing the parlor. With words and riffs spraying every which way, each song on Goodbye Cruel World becomes a pointless mosaic — think of a tailor bent on stitching a pair of trousers entirely out of buttons. Producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley give the Attractions the fullest, deepest mix of their career, at once contemporary and detailed. With its bold and radio-friendly textures, its skipping rhythms and cloying sax, "Only Flame" might make it as a hit single, the malicious, callowly sung lyric notwithstanding. For that matter, production might be the only language fans are trained to understand these days.
Funny, because the succor of the comely surface is the subject of Costello's finest number here, "Worthless Thing." Using the mania of Elvis Presley fans as his example of how people prefer the artifacts of stardom to the grisly details beneath, Costello lights into TV's (and video's) lying makeovers; it culminates in a chorus that depicts his own inadequacies through the eyes of his lover, who wishes to make him over into someone taller and better-looking. You might even conclude that "Worthless Thing" is the complaint of a performer who doesn't want to be a star: "Keep your bloody hands off my life / Your affectionate fingerprint." Granted, you'd expect this from someone who has made a career out of being the sexual underdog and who, when last seen on Solid Gold, danced like This Year's Poster Child, but the careering melody and hard, clear acoustic guitars refresh his plaints. And it's a more sustained song and performance than the overblown "Peace in Our Time," which becomes a textbook dramatization.of the tug of war between. Costello's songwriting ambition and his mouth almighty. It's the spare, funeral-march arrangement that carries the song — not the words, which devolve from the first verse's harrowing World War II/Cold War particulars into the third verse's outdated wisecracks about John Glenn.
Costello has always chafed against tradition while reveling in its stability, and you can hear this tension play itself out in his voice. Just as he broadened the field for rock songwriters by fusing an intellectual's density with a trashman's guiltless love of pop frills, he brings prerock vocal poise into a rock context — and the burrs and shimmers of his voice can be striking. This voice is a mixed blessing, though: he has sure pitch (unlike rock's greatest nonsingers) but a cramped range (like rock's greatest nonsingers). Unfortunately, the one tempts Costello to exceed the bounds of the other; he pulls out the cornball torch moves only to find that he's emoting through his nose. So he relies on a handful of melodramatic tics: pulling up short and inhaling at the end of a word, dragging out a vowel forever. His sharpest singing is done within a very small radius: the slight ironic waver he gives to the word "shoes" in "Peace in Our Time," the way he ticks off consonants with a hard crackle. If Costello could only resign himself to his own constraints — whether the reach of his verbosity or the reach of his vocals — he could rule a world of his own design. But then, resignation has always been anathema to him.