Little things mean a lot in Elvis Costello's universe. Rock's most elegant and articulate moralist. Costello perceives the cheap betrayals between lovers as being the stuff of nuclear war. This battling world is the result of countless greedy decisions by individuals, so Costello makes sense when he warns that the stain of a small corruption has a way of spreading.
The Picasso of Pop, Costello spews music forth at an alarming rate, and though there's been much brilliance in his torrential outpouring, his body of work could use a trim and a haircut. His last few albums have seemed more like working sketches than finished products, and his songs have grown impenetrably labyrinthine. Convoluted as a murder mystery, his melodies often stagger under the strain of all their twists and turns and the weight of too many words. When his songs misfire, it's usually because they're laden with an overabundance of urbane wordplay. A case in point is "Worthless Thing," an essay on the wages of fame and one of two songs here that discuss Costello's namesake, Elvis Presley. Say too much too fast, and the listener's receptor shuts down.
Though Costello's voice is alive with feeling, he frequently seems to be straining to get all the words out. It's no coincidence that his best vocal here, on "I Wanna Be Loved," is the album's simplest song (and the only one he didn't write). A close second is "The Only Flame in Town," a gracefully designed ballad that allows Costello the vocalist to upstage Costello the exhaustingly clever writer.
A savvy synthesizer of styles, Costello incorporates everything from Sam & Dave to Erik Satie, and Goodbye Cruel World features a few of his most ambitious arrangements yet. "Room With No Number," an episode in motel intrigue, is dominated by a keyboard part that's evocative of the piano music for a silent movie. "Inch by Inch," a tale of love decaying into bitterness, has the spooky mood of Costello's first American hit, "Watching the Detectives."
Though Costello occasionally overreaches himself, his goals are above reproach, and when he gets it right he truly is great. The standout cut here is "Peace in Our Time," a haunting piece of folk music on a par with last years' "Shipbuilding," his moving and understated song about the Falklands War.
Pointing an angry and bewildered finger at Reagan and other world leaders, "Peace in Our Time" was a hit in England, but its chance of winning much of an audience in the United States is slim. The kids who made last year's love ditty, "Everyday I Write the Book," a hit aren't likely to care a fig about Pershing missiles (you know, those kooky things America is stationing throughout Europe). Costello is commendably crafty in his unceasing effort to wise the pop scene up to the fact that there's a world beyond the boy next door, and that the same code of behavior should rule both realms.