Elvis Costello's latest release, Goodbye Cruel World, is a sophisticated blend of cynical lyrics and unpredictable music textures.
Goodbye Cruel World is the follow up to Costello's last album, Punch the Clock, which was his most accessible album to date. Although most critics feel that he's mellowed in a positive way over the past several years, for the present he seems to have returned to a more cynical angry outlook. Listeners can perhaps take the music on a pop level and enjoy it for its quality, but if they really listen to the lyrics they will either have to identify with his cynicism or be turned off by it.
Much of the album examines the discrepancy between pleasant social facades and the feelings behind them that aren't so pretty. "Home Truth" is about the civilized growing apart of two people. They turn on the TV because it's easier than talking about the problems they've learned to ignore. Costello's band, the Attractions, has a clean, direct sound. The piano ripples in clear octaves beneath the aching melody, lending the song an air of cold classiness. The lyrics are bluntly honest:
Is it my shirt or my toothpaste
That is whiter than white?
Is it the lies that I tell you
Or the lies that I might?
"The Comedians" is a bright song featuring electric piano. The subject, however, is not so cheery. It describes the plight of a man surrounded by empty personalities who are caught up in appearances. He continues his attack on shallowness in "Love Field." The Synthesizers throb with a hazy, psychedelic effect while Costello sings about loveless sex with "a functional stranger."
There are only a couple of songs where he leaves his cynicism behind. The single, "The Only Flame In Town," is a melodic pop song with insistent percussion and a slick sax solo. Guest vocalist Daryl Hall's soulful crooning compliments the depth and richness of Costello's voice. There is even a clever take off on Bach's Joy worked into the end of the song. In "I Wanna Be Loved," he comes the closest he has ever come to being sentimental. It's the only song on the album not written by him, but he brings it alive by his echoing vocal that expresses the pain and frustration of loneliness. The softness of this lament is refreshingly uncharacteristic of Costello.
Cynicism is still the stronger force on the album, however. Some listeners may be offended by anti-American comments on several songs. For example, in the highly sarcastic "Peace in Our Time," Costello says, "There's already one spaceman in the White House, what do you want another one for?" Other listeners will simply accept it as part of his usual arrogance. Whatever the case, with Goodbye Cruel World, Costello succeeds in his attempt to get at genuine emotion in a phony world.