It's almost Elvis Costello and the distractions this time out. Goodbye Cruel World, LP #10 (here in America, at least), has such a desperate busyness to it that it's tough to get a fix on its strengths. The arrangements are so errant from the thrust of the material, it's as though — to go to the West End of the moment — The Real Thing were directed in the manner of Noises Off. The comparison isn't as random as all that, actually; like Tom Stoppard, Costello gets simply dizzy over the possibilities of language. There's a silent chuckle when he tosses off a particularly satisfying rhyme or lobs a potent little word grenade over the fence. In The Real Thing, Stoppard has his playwright/hero say, "What we're trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock it might... travel."
That could be Costello's credo, and on Goodbye Cruel World there are some exemplary demonstrations of his passionate dedication to craft (or crafty dedication to passion: either will do). "The Only Flame In Town" uses flammatory imagery the way "Everyday I Write The Book" took a literary metaphor and ran with it — it's equally clever, and honestly felt — but it bounces all over the place, almost dribbles away. It's too good a song to get loose, but Costello and his producers (Langer & Winstanley again) don't trust it enough. How can an album with so many first-rate songs — "Inch By Inch," "Worthless Thing," "Home Truth" and "Peace In Our Time" are very worthy additions, by any yardstick, to the increasingly impressive Costello canon — go so far astray? The Attractions click into place from time to time, on the whirling gothic mock-cocktail jazz of "Inch By Inch," for example, but the Langer/Winstanley team, more often, can't find the handle.
The runamuck tone of the LP is particularly surprising because it follows Costello's spring tour, a series of solo recitals. The show was a riveting recap, and introduced a bunch of the songs that've turned up on Goodbye Cruel World. (After the tour came another brilliant "Imposter" import single, "Peace In Our Time," in the tradition of "Pills And Soap" and "Shipbuilding," b/w a solo version of Richard Thompson's "Withered And Died.") Why, then, does the elaborateness of the subsequent record remind one of Revolver? (The Beatles song he did in concert was "Yes It Is," and his Dylan selection was "I Threw It All Away." Don't you wish you were there? Pester Columbia for a live album; you won't be sorry.)
All right, enough about what Goodbye Cruel World isn't? Well, except for "Peace In Our Time," it has the most side-twoish side two of any EC LP yet: songs such as "Joe Porterhouse" and "Sour Milk-Cow Blues" are the kinds of things that were floating around on EPs and flips of singles until collated on Taking Liberties. The album also continues Costello's explorations into waltz time (no contemporary pop composer save Sondheim has taken us for so many waltzes), and the elegant romanticism it implies contrasts nicely with his unsparing observations of domestic strife. As far as I can recall, this is the first time Elvis II has gone on record re Elvis I, and he also mentions Frank Sinatra, who, by the way, should be diving head first into the Elvis II songbook ("Kid About It," "Almost Blue" and "The Only Flame In Town," just for starters) instead of bothering with Alan & Marilyn Bergman.
"I hung up the phone tonight / Just as you said 'I love you' / Once this would have been coincidence / Now these things start to bother me." Lovely. The melodies glide like Hans Brinker, while the ice is about to crack. He's loquacious and audacious (see, it's contagious), and his antennae are always out to catch bullying intimidations, political or emotional (or cultural: some people have already called "Worthless Thing" his anti-MTV diatribe; I'm not so sure, but I wouldn't dismiss the interpretation). Like Punch The Clock, Goodbye Cruel World is a jumble, lacking the focus of his best works (albums 1 through 4 and 8 on my scorecard), and much of it goes kablooey. My advice is to disregard the sideshow and concentrate on what's going on in the center ring.