Ever since Trust (1981), when Elvis Costello revealed his ambition to write like Cole Porter and sing like Frank Sinatra, he has been turning out exercises in dazzling songcraft, moving further away from the compressed rock of his early albums. Imperial Bedroom (1982) was Costello's masterpiece of this phase. He weaved Beatlesque bounce, Broadway elegance, and folk simplicity into a sophisticated brand of pop, and puzzled over love's fractured bonds with juicy wordplay. But on Goodbye Cruel World, he succumbs to the dangers of eclecticism. These songs carom between styles with no unifying theme, and Costello's musical cleverness can't hide his surprisingly sloppy writing or the perfunctoriness with which he addresses his familiar obsessions, faithless love and lovers' guilt.
On last year's Punch the Clock, Costello united his conflicting desires (mass popularity vs. artistic integrity) by writing a glossy, brass-laden album about battling lassitude in work, love, and thought. Here, indecision sinks the record. For example, in his attempt at an even bigger single, "The Only Flame in Town," Costello virtually rips off his 1983 Top 10 hit, "Everyday I Write the Book" (and needlessly drags in singer Daryl Hall as a security for more airplay). Yet on "Worthless Thing," the finest song on the album, he derides a celebrity-fixated culture. "The Great Unknown" — a humble acceptance that the song, not the singer, is immortal — is top-rate, and so is "Peace in Our Time," which conjures up World War II, Grenada, and America's beauty-pageant Presidential campaigns to caution that peace isn't possible as long as we're vulnerable to propaganda. In these three songs, Costello retains his facility for raising pop's literacy level.
But forget the rest. The real problem with Goodbye Cruel World is that its prolific creator simply needs a vacation.