Although it contains a couple of the finest pieces he has yet recorded, Goodbye Cruel World re-emphasizes the dangers inherent in Elvis Costello's fecundity. The appearance of nine albums in the eight years since his debut with My Aim Is True is not least testimony to the sheer enthusiasm with which Costello approaches music, but is has to be said that he is now spreading his remarkable imagination too thinly.
Even allowing for the effects of familiarity, his latest effort cannot be said to rival This Year's Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy or Trust in breadth or richness. All too often he seems to be writing on automatic pilot, producing melodies which virtually amount to self-caricature and lyrics from which the once characteristic crackle and snap have been expunged.
The metaphor of "Sour Milk-Cow Blues" obstinately refuses to ignite; the riddles of "The Great Unknown" and "Worthless Thing" simply do not seem worth the effort, and the images of "The Deportees Club" offer a miniature lexicon of Costello's personal clichés.
Two items alone tell us that the heart which created the tragic beauty of "Alison" and deployed the firepower of "Mystery Dance" still beats within Costello. His version of "I Wanna Be Loved", a soul ballad rescued from an obscure anthology, floats on an ambiguous harmonic scheme embellished by a morbidly plodding bass guitar, a chilling string-synthesizer line and a highly expressive tenor saxophone solo by Gary Barnacle. Its unhurried pacing and simple but pointed lyric set Costello up for one of his most affecting vocal performances, enhanced by the background harmonies of Scritti Politti's Green Gartside.
The Only Flame In Town" on which another guest, Daryl Hall (of Hall and Oates) joins Elvis for a duet, is an effortlessly pretty mid-tempo tune which again benefits from Barnacle's saxophone interjections and from the clear, crisp production of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley.