Hot Press, July 27, 1984

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Blood on the tracks

Elvis Costello And The Attractions / Goodbye Cruel World

Declan Lynch

Mr Costello retains his edge as social critic and confounder of mass mania when all around him are queuing up to be photographed by Lord Lichfield. Recently a couple of us were deciphering the meaning in a photograph of Spandau Ballet (it was a slow day) and settled on a message which went "I'm rich .. fuck you".

Elvis still has a swarm of bees in his eminently sane bonnet, and his pen is mightier than every airbrush in Sloane Square. Certain commentators like to patronise the uncritical wisdom of the proletariat by running down Mr Costello's angst in favour of the godlike genius of messrs. Kemp, Le Bon, O'Dowd and Co. Ltd. It's the old argument which has driven decent men and women to the point of distraction, namely, that popularity equals merit. My elders used point to the site of Brendan Shine's wallet to counter my misgivings about the aesthetic value of "O'Brien Has Nowhere To Go" or the quite incredible merits of "Carrots From Clonown".

Elvis Costello is not interested in selling dummies or fostering illusions, because he takes his audience seriously enough to make the kind of records of which he is capable, rather than stuff that will do them until the mansion is bought and paid for.

The quality of writing and playing on Goodbye Cruel World, the dexterity of his lyrical conondrums, and his intuitive wasp of complex emotions are acutely accurate, scathing, melancholic and touching.

"Peace In Our Time" is Costello at his most devastatingly pungent: "Out of the aeroplane stepped Chamberlain with a condemned man's stare / But we all cheered wildly, a photograph was taken, as he waved a piece of paper in the air / Now the Disco Machine lives in Munich and we are all friends / And I slip on my Italian dancing shoes as the evening descends".

The monumental bitterness of "Peace In Our Time" is an extension of Costello's anger at the collapse of the North of England under Thatcherism, the erosion of the small man's way of life and the destruction of an ethos. Failure is not the most popular topic for a song and dance man, but to quote Philip Larkin, a successful piece about failure is a success nonetheless.

"The Comedians" has the savant "Up while the dawn is breaking / Even though my heart is aching / I should be drinking a toast to absent friends / Instead of these comedians".

The heart bleeds. There's a crucial level of informed paranoia in Elvis Costello's records, in the way he endlessly juggles metaphors and cliches — "In America the law is a piece of ass" — an obsession with the cheap and the cruel. Elvis is watching Big Brother.

"I Wanna be Loved" is a gift, the Attractions at their subtlest. "Joe Porterhouse" and "Home Truth" echo the sweet sorrow of "Secondary Modern" doused in a muted, reflective, sense of pain. But surprise. surprise this standard is maintained throughout Goodbye Cruel World. Mr Costello, clearly, has forgotten how to write a naff song — if he ever knew.

If confirmation were needed it's here one more time: Costello is an immaculate songwriter, with a conscience. 100 proof.

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Hot Press, July 27, 1984

Declan Lynch reviews Goodbye Cruel World.


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Page scan.
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