Elvis Costello's evolution continues, but the direction is still in question.
The turning point decidedly came last year, with the release of Punch the Clock — to date the 29-year-old singer-songwriter's biggest commercial success in America. Although he is a major star in his native England and throughout Europe, his commerciality could very well have spread here.
It came close.
Led by his first substantial U.S. single, "Everyday I Write the Book" — a big MTV hit for Costello, too — that album featured the TKO Horns, which presented a whole new sound for the guy who was known for a while as rock's angry young man.
The horns punctuated a highly orchestrated piece, marking a bold move in his career as he brought along the TKO Horns — a section far removed from the normal instruments we see in rock 'n' roll — on tour with his fierce-rocking standbys, the Attractions. The angry young man seemed to be angry no more.
The tour that reaches the Spectrum tomorrow night — with longtime accomplice Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit opening — will be supporting Costello's latest album, Goodbye Cruel World (Columbia).
Goodbye Cruel World is not as great as his past works — Punch the Clock included — nor has it received similar critical praise. But it still contains moments that equal Costello's best. As such, this album registers as merely a blip on Costello's career seismograph.
One of the more interesting moments comes on "The Only Flame in Town," less for the pairing of Costello's and Hall & Oates' Daryl Hall on vocals than the role Hall plays on the cut. As strong and rich as Hall's voice is, it takes a minor role on "The Only Flame in Town, another one of Costello's knotty musings on romance complete with corny puns.
Throughout the LP, Costello continues to display his brilliant knack for writing lyrics. Who else but he could have come up with a tongue-twister like "Footprints set in sentimental cement."?
Costello (born Declan McManus) has worked this time around the political vein, previously only hinted at on Punch the Clock, in which he talked about the Falklands crisis on "Shipbuilding." The obvious political reference here is when Elvis mocks Ronald Reagan. referring to "the space man in the White House" on "Peace in Our Time," a protest song about government intervention. Still, its impact is smoothed out by the resurgence of the French horn section and his mannerly croon.
On the whole, Goodbye Cruel World paints a Costello who seems so subdued and introspective, one might confuse it with mediocrity.
But even mediocre Elvis Costello is good music.