Duke University Chronicle, September 20, 1984

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Costello disappoints with dull 'Cruel World'


Dino Carlaftes

Course offering: Modern English Pop-Rock (2 credits). 1977 — Elvis Costello releases My Aim is True. Allegedly the first so-called "new wave" album, it receives Rolling Stone's "Best Album of the Year" award. 1978 — This Year's Model hits the racks. Features the classic dance tunes "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio." 1979 — Armed Forces is released; major radio attention given to "Oliver's Army;" 1981 — Trust is heralded as Costello's Rubber Soul representing a stylistic shift to introspective love ballads 1982 — Imperial Bedroom becomes the most critically acclaimed album of the past five years; heralded as nothing short of a masterpiece. 1983 — Costello aims for pure pop and adds a horn section on Punch the Clock; critically panned but generally fun to listen to. 1984 — Goodbye Cruel World released; aptly titled for it seems to forbode the departure of Elvis Costello's magic.

Elvis Costello is one of today's musical geniuses. He is one of the most prolific songwriters around, having released ten albums in seven year. He has always had an enigmatic personality: in 1979 he was quoted denouncing American music as inferior to English music, a shabby product of the empty-headed bastard children of the "Original White Boys."

One year later, he released an entire album of cover versions of Nashville's best songwriters (Almost Blue). He once instigated a fight with singer Bonnie Bramlett by insulting Ray Charles and many other great black musicians (Bramlett proceeded to deck Costello in the most publicized barroom scuffle since Billy Martin took on the marshmallow salesman); three years later he fully incorporated "The Motown Sound" into his music (Punch the Clock).

His metamorphosis from angry, misanthropic little man, to insightful, poignant love analyst was both exciting to observe and satisfying to experience. And though it is true that he has not had a top-ten album since Armed Force, he has not sold out to the Duran Duran or Hall and Oates school of pure escalator pop, either.

Now we have Goodbye Cruel World, the newest amalgam of love dirges and unconventional musical arrangements The ty lyrics are still there, though less stinging; the talent of the band is still spotlighted, though not quite as excitingly; and sad Elvis still sings his heart out, but we're not really listening. The best one can say about this album is that it provides the listener with generally inoffensive, unprovocative mood music; the worst that one can say, is that it is excrutiatingly dull.

Goodbye Cruel World opens with "The Only Flame in Town," Costello's latest made-for-radio song. Despite the songs's mediocre lyrics, the arrangement and production are competent enough to sound pleasant. Unfortunately, this does not make for a memorable piece.

First, the song lacks compelling narrative. Costello's keen storytelling skill has reserved him a revered space apart from most middle-of-the road lyricists Even the vocal contribution of Daryl Hall cannot salvage what is generally just an uninteresting song.

"Home Truth" and "Room With No Number" are classic examples of Costello's major flaw: the willingness to compromise on melody in order to create moods through ironic lyrics and aggressive, staccato arrangements.

What you get, in effect, is excellent background music for a Hitchcock movie or an episode of Perry Mason rather than satisfying pop music.

"Inch by Inch" and "Worthless Thing" follow, and one encounters them with a sigh of relief because they are the best tracks on the album. "Inch by Inch" is much in the tradition of Elvis' past somber ballads (like "Pills and Soap" and "Shot With His Own Gun").

It's got a great "Dashiell Hammett" feel to it, sort of like the listener has been dropped into a smoke-filled speakeasy occupied by raincoat-clad detectives and sultry women. The song sports a subtle yet powerful refrain which is created by what has become a rare occurrence in Elvis' recent work: the bandmembers sound like they're playing together (rather than off on their own improvisational tangents). "Worthless Thing" is equally as satisfying primarily for its witty, caustic lyrics. Elvis describes the dehumanizing efforts of an insecure society eager to either deify or commercialize its media heroes.

Moreover, this cut is reminiscent of the classic Imperial Bedroom album, in that its light melody cleverly disguises the despondent and exasperated message below.

It's downhill all the way from here, however. "I Wanna be Loved" which opens side two, could have succeeded as a Motown-inspired track, like last year's "Everyday I Wri. the Book." It is replete with harmonies and a smooth, ethereal sax solo, but Elvis ruins its execution.

Once more, he goes off on instrumental lines during the song which generates an unnerving dissonance. These shifts are functionally destructive because they interrupt the melodic lines well-established early in the song.

I suppose that Elvis is trying to bring something new to his brand of pop music, but since he has decided to play mostly love ballads, he should adjust ids arrangements accordingly. The current standoff sounds something like the Mothers of Invention arranging compositions for Lionel Ritchie.

The rest of the album is unarguably dull and virtually disposable. The most offensive track is "The Deportee," a nonsensical, irritating, thumping rock and roll mesa Can this be the same fellow who gave us "Blame it On Cain" and "Pump It Up?"

Finally, "Peace In Our Time" which closes the album, could have been a classic. I saw Elvis in New York this summer and he played this song accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. It was a really moving scene, and comparisons to Dylan could not be avoided.

"Peace In Our Time" speaks to the death of the 1970's "Me Generation" attitude as a signpost to better times ahead. The only "catch" is that while we were busy indulging in our own little world of discos and the mood rings, the real world was getting increasingly closer to nuclear disaster.

If only Costello recorded "Peace In Our Time" with just his guitar rather than with an overly melodramatic church organ, he might have given us a quite memorable song to end an otherwise overall waste of vinyl.

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The Chronicle, R&R, September 20, 1984


Dino Carlaftes reviews Goodbye Cruel World.

Images

1984-09-20 Duke University Chronicle R&R page 02 clipping 01.jpg
Clipping.

1984-09-20 Duke University Chronicle R&R page 02.jpg
Page scan.

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