When Elvis Costello appeared on the music scene with the 1977 release of My Aim is True, critics hailed him as a brilliant songwriter who could focus on such a complex concern as British right-wing politics while on the same album expressing a fascination with personal matters of infidelity and honesty. Because he displayed a burning commitment and passion for his music, and his songs often seethed with rage, Costello was immediately categorized with Graham Parker and Joe Jackson as the artistic Angry Young Men of the 1976-1978 Anglo punk movement.
Seven years later, Parker's music, The Real Macaw, still displays a raw gut-wrenching flavor while Joe Jackson has altered his stance, releasing Jazz / pop albums, such as Night and Day, which display technical competence but leave much to be desired in terms of real feeling.
Throughout Costello's career, he's adopted a variety of musical stances, ranging from soul to country and western. Unfortunately, on Goodbye Cruel World, Costello tries to follow the direction he took with his last album. Punch the Clock, by performing pop-oriented songs with sometimes disastrous results.
The LP begins promisingly enough with "The Only Flame in Town," a song that combines the unlikely vocal pair of Costello and Daryl Hall, Mr. Chic of Hall and Oates fame, while highlighting Costello's songwriting ability. Behind Gary Barnacle's snappy sax line and Bruce Thomas' punctuating bass, he cleverly presents the demise of a romance: "But you blew hot and cold / Turned my heart to a cinder / And with each passing day / You're less tender and more tinder."
Such use of a pun recalls the talents of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, principal songwriters of the now-defunct British band, Squeeze. Like Difford and Tilbrook, Costello can spin descriptive vignettes laced with bittersweet humor. Costello produced several Squeeze albums, including East Side Story and Sweets From a Stranger. The band's Beatlesque pop affectations apparently have influenced his style.
Costello also is in fine form on "Room With No Number," a tale of illicit love in a hotel, set to an appropriately suspiscious-sounding piano intro, and "I Wanna be Loved," an Eurythmics-like synthesized lamentation of loneliness.
But the highlight of the album, and the painful reminder that the majority of Goodbye Cruel World's material is marginal, is "Worthless Thing," a diatribe against trends such as MTV and the recent rockabilly rage. The song sports a syncopated beat and a hook-filled chorus, not to mention some of Costello's best lyrics: "All the cars and pills and girls who tore his shirt to tatters / Do you know how tall he was, 'cos that is all that really matters. / Do you know his mother's last name, do you think that he's divine? / You've seen the film, you've read the book you're drinking Elvis Presley wine."
Costello's lyrics, however, don't always jibe with Goodbye Cruel World's musical montage of guitar, synthesizer and horns. Throughout his career, he's written with a lyrical obscurity that has admirably challenged the listener. In this case, the complexity of the music is enough of a chore. Costello further muddles the songs with confusing political references, which at times seem to have no relationship to the songs.
Because of this peculiarity, Costello appears to make underlying and indiscernible political statements that bog down much of the material, particularly on side two of the LP. For example, on "The Deportees Club," the only song that recalls the musical punk irreverence of his debut album, Costello merely rants and raves against an unidentifiable enemy: "In the Arrivederci Roma nightclub, bar and grill /Standing in the fiberglass ruins, watching time stand still / All your troubles you confess to another faceless, backless dress / Schnapps Chianti Porter and Ouzo / Pernod Vodka Sambuca, I love you so." The lines only serve as a hollow echo of the bitterness Costello displayed on such earlier songs as "Less Than Zero." A further reference to a man who prays "for the secret life of Frank Sinatra" adds to the confusion.
An overt political statement finally emerges on "Peace in Our Time," the LP's final song. Costello chronicles the deceiving appearance of a world that openly clamors for global tranquility, but actually champions the insane power struggles, which push us to the brink of holocaust. It's a complex theme set to a stately organ, and features a noble trombone solo by Jim Paterson.
But Costello makes his commentary with all the subtlety of a Jackhammer. He does make an appropriate reference to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's World War II concessions to Hitler, but the lyrics quickly deteriorate with a culmination in the final verse: "They're lighting a bonfire upon every hilltop in the land / Just another tiny island invaded when he's got the whole world in his hands / And the Heavyweight Champion fights in the International Propaganda Star Wars / There's already one spaceman in the White House, what do you want another one for?"
"Peace in Our Time" and the earlier song, "Worthless Thing," serve as an example of Costello's vast ambitions on Goodbye Cruel World. After seven years, he's still involved in complex political commentary. Only now it's set to a sometimes disconcerting pop background. An admirable effort, but still a disappointment.