Once considered the best new wave songwriter coming out of England in the late 70's, Elvis Costello's career has taken some bizarre turns in recent years, polarizing his fans into two camps (those who like his music and those who don't) and confusing alrnost everyone in the process.
Goodbye Cruel World, Elvis' tenth LP in a mere seven years, finds this master songwriter struggling with his own prolific tendencies. Certainly, Costello's newer compositions reveal a number of uncomfortable excesses that, in the end. make many of these otherwise fine songs suffer.
One of these excesses is Costello's unexplainable passion for cramming as many songs as possible on a single disc (sometimes as many as twenty). In the earlier days, this practice seemed to pay off on albums such as Get Happy. The twenty songs had their own unique identities and worked well together to build up the album's character and overall depth.
These days, however, not all of Costello's songs work so well together, or individually for that matter. Of the 13 songs on Cruel World, only six really justify their existence. Six worthwhile songs on any normal album might be considered a success. Here, however, six songs are only about half of the album. Most of the remaining songs serve only to detract from this record's appealing aspects. It's clear that Costello has become increasingly unable to edit his own musical output — a dangerous flaw for such a fine writer.
While songs like "Home Truth" and "Joe Porterhouse" ramble on endlessly through some pointless arrangements, "Inch by Inch" impresses through its sheer simplicity. Mysterious bass and keyboards, offset by a haunting sex part, and some surprisingly cryptic lyrics provide one of the album's brightest moments. Costello could stand to learn from his own subtlety.
Cruel World closes on an up note, with possibly the year's best ballad. The beautifully sarcastic/hopeful "Peace in our Time" is an excellent example of Costello's potential. It is a stirring song about peace and the lengths some people arc willing to go to obtain it. Those who accuse Costello of having written his last socially relevant lyrics have very little ground to stand on now.
Although, in the long run, Cruel World is a mediocre work from a musical legend, it still features most of the ingredients that made Elvis great from the beginning: fine lyrics, well crafted pop melodies, and Costello's own uniquely charismatic voice. The only element really missing from the early days is the legendary Costello rage, and even that is hinted at here (although much more toned down) in "The Deportees Club" and "Worthless Thing" (reported to be an attack on MTV and the video age in general). It's a shame these elements are lost in the final outcome of a muddled, confused, uneven album.
This isn't the first time Elvis has been plagued by his inability to judge the quality of his own work. Last year's Punch the Clock suffered much the same fate and, in the end, had about the same success ratio as Cruel World. Perhaps no one has told Costello that in these days of rising record prices and inflated rock star egos, most musicians wait well over a year between major releases. If Costello were not in such a hurry to put out his next LP (nine months between Punch the Clock and Cruel World), he might have waited and combined the stronger tracks from both of these albums. The result would have been a first-rate album. Hopefully, Costello will take his time and be a bit more selective before his next release.