Melody Maker, July 28, 1984

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Melody Maker

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World's finest

Elvis Costello And The Attractions / Goodbye Cruel World

Allan Jones

Goodbye Cruel World is Elvis Costello's tenth album in seven years; a rough calculation currently puts his published repertoire of original material at around 130 songs. Considering this, it would seem positively churlish to describe his monumental industry, the sheer energy of his invention, as merely prolific. The man obviously bleeds music.

Even more remarkable however, than this kind of creative promiscuity, has been the generally unassailable standard of songwriting Costello has maintained throughout his career and he often breathtaking diversity of musical styles he's investigated, plundered and appropriated.

Since My Aim Is True, Elvis' records have entertained the galvanic rock thrust of This Year's Model, the glossy pop strategies of Armed Forces, the rumbustuous emotional soul attack of Get Happy!!, the epic maturity of Trust, the brooding country desolation of Almost Blue, the sophisticated orchestrations of Imperial Bedroom and the brassy Stax-pop of Punch The Clock. Add to these achievements the splendid diversions of the 10 Bloody Marys / Taking Liberties compilations, the Imposter releases and "Shipbuilding" and it becomes clear that Costello has amassed a positively awesome body of work.

Goodbye Cruel World evinces no critical lapse in quality. From where I'm listening, in fact, it sounds like the most approachable Costello LP since Trust, more intimate than the steely angularity of IB, less blaring, more resolute than Punch The Clock. The story is that most of this record was written in two weeks, with Costello hunched over a typewriter in a rented office, and was recorded as quickly. And it's true. Goodbye Cruel World has a very taking-care-of-business-like air about it, a grave, serious urgency, In this, it resembles Costello's best LP, Get Happy!!. Elvis was on the ropes then, however, reeling from a series of largely self-inflicted blows that had badly damaged his career. Despite its barren title, Goodbye Cruel World has a lighter touch, doesn't really go in too much for the lacerating self-examination of "Riot Act", say, or "Secondary Modern."

There is a sharp sense of spontaneity apparent hers, though, that was oddly missing from the last album, particularly. Abandoning the TKO Horns, who were smeared all over Punch The Clock, the Attractions sound sleeker, more invigorating than they have for a while, with the mighty Pete Thomas sounding especially like he's enjoying himself again after a term in the dog-house. "Sour Milk-Cow Blues," which recalls the nasty sting of "You Belong To Me," and "The Deportees Club," which is carried on a torrent of alliteration, boast nasty riffing edges, played with a howling abandon. The latter, incidentally, quotes from both Costello's own "Man Out Of Time" and The Who's "I Can See For Miles": both sound like they were dashed off by Costello in a rare old temper.

Contrarily, "Cruel World" has been described elsewhere as Costello's most incoherent album. This criticism was no doubt provoked again by his demonstrable versatility and the fact that on the course of 13 tracks, Elvis covers more ground than most of the competition out together on a hiking holiday.

With their usual formidable finesse, the Attractions take on everything from the lush modern soul of "I Wanna Be Loved" and the swaggeringly nonchalant and thoroughly beguiling "The Only Flame In Town" to the almost folk-rock lilt of the heartfelt "The Comedians," where the chaps, as Tom Sheehan accurately observed, contrive to sound amazingly like Pentangle.

These are elegantly poised pieces of work by anyone's standards, but there are occasional shortcomings. "Home Truth" is a stab at a torrid ballad, full of guilt and recrimination, in the manner of the classic "Riot Act." It's all a bit ponderous, though, with Nieve's ballistic pianistics {kept discreetly under wraps everywhere else) lending the song a spurious melodrama and Costello's lyric bogging down in a mess of wordy pedantry. "Inch By Inch," which seems to collapse into a tidier reprise of "Watching The Detectives," has a seductive resonance, but ends up getting into a lather about nothing very much at all.

Everything else, however, is perfectly on target. "Room With No Number" is a vivid nightmarish vignette about passion turning to murder and the mysterious, probably violent disappearance of two lovers; The White Hotel, directed by Hitchcock, perhaps, or D M. Thomas re-writing Psycho, even. Musically, the cut crackles with tension and fairground horror, like some taunting synthesis of Madness' "House Of Fun" and "Green Shirt."

"Worthless Thing," meanwhile, is one of Elvis' most scathing recent songs, a contemptuous portrait of celebrities and the people who adore them. Costello's own King Of Comedy, in fact, with an astonishingly vindictive final verse. "Love Field," which completes side one, is at once sad and bitter, aches with a frozen pain and a poignancy that somehow recalls Gram Parsons. Its tempo is dictated by a throbbing electronic pulse and Thomas languid drumming. It finally evokes a spellbinding image of an awful, narcissistic loneliness, where sensations are rendered anonymously — "feel the anxious rhythm of a functional stranger," Costello intones ominously.

"Joe Porterhouse," on side two, forms the first part of a loose trilogy of songs that focus with a compassionate clarity upon the plight of a beleaguered nation. Like "Shipbuilding," the song might have been written as an epitaph for a Britain ravaged by war, though its reference to the victims of Bluff Cove is tantalisingly oblique, and savaged by the attritions imposed by a cruel, heartless Tory government. The song revolves around images of absence, leavings, the death of hope. "Don't let them see you crying that way," Costello insists, his plangent cry bringing a lump the size of Gibralter to the old throat. Regular viewers might also be interested to know that the chorus and its opening line are re-worked from "(I Love You) When You Sleep," which Costello wrote recently for Tracie.

"The Great Unknown," on the other hand, was originally intended for Robert Wyatt, but eventually turned down. I suspect Wyatt might have thought it somehow glib, though I'm sure Elvis won't thank me for saying so. Maybe Robert simply didn't respond to the song's imagery, which is franker, more explicit than "Shipbuilding." The opening verse is a corker, if one might so flippantly describe its evocation of murder (possibly carried out by the IRA), revenge and anonymous death, which is undoubtedly among the finest pieces of writing in the Costello songbook.

Goodbye Cruel World makes its final claim upon our attention with "Peace In Our Time." A neglected masterpiece, it finds Costello with all defences down, addressing himself as directly as possible to at universal concern. Not exactly "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," its sad chart placing reflects a spectacular public deafness; nevertheless, it carries this album out on a note of dignified responsibility.

So: Goodbye Cruet World isn't just a great album, it's a great Elvis Costello album. And that, as you should know, is something else altogether.

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Melody Maker, July 28, 1984


Allan Jones reviews Goodbye Cruel World.

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