"Why must I be so lonely...?"
Why does Elvis Costello sing that simple line with more conviction and passion than the rest of his new album in its entirety? Why does "I Wanna Be Loved," a little-known Teacher's Edition record (Thanks Barney — Ed.) arouse a far more heartfelt performance from Elvis than do his own songs? Why does Goodbye Cruel World regress to styles and preoccupations seemingly left behind with Trust? Why, after seven years of nearly consistent brilliance, has Elvis Costello finally made a disappointing LP?
Yet there is nothing here downright incompetent — and its all beautifully played — but neither is there a single self-penned song that wouldn't have been considered a filler, a less-than-classic, on any previous Costello LP. And the element missing is that force which wordlessly catches your soul and throws its emotional and spiritual switches, namely the music that springs from inspiration. Goodbye Cruel World perspires, grafts, crafts and contrives. With the noble exception of "I Wanna Be Loved," no tune here shivers my timbers, puts lead in my pencil or animates any of those cliches which Elvis hoards as his stock-in-trade.
For it is the verbal cash-and-carry of Elvis's lyrical imagination that crashed to earth, spilling its contents once no longer perched atop the snow-capped peaks of musical rapture. (Mat! Cool It — Ed.) The same basic trick of heightening the image content of commonplace phrases by deft juxtaposition achieves a visionary intensity when allied to music as drivingly dramatic as "Man Out Of Time" or "Beyond Belief," or else a profound poignancy when counterpointed by tunes like "Secondary Modern" or "Shipbuilding." But here the melodies seem painfully worked at and bent into shape — echoes of previous Costello songs cannibalised and refurbished to perform as if brand new.
And the sentiments left standing exposed by their threadbare transformation into song also have that dog-eared look about them. Not that the thorough exploration of a single theme is necessarily bad, but "The Only Flame In Town," "Inch By Inch" and "Sour Milk-Cow Blues" are all saying almost exactly the same thing that he's already expressed far more eloquently, convincingly and less self-consciously in the past. What were once hallmarks of style now appear a matter of habit concealing an absence of belief in the authenticity of the feeling behind a song, a bluff of incorrigible metaphor and punnery behind which lies nothing to say.
So where to now?
Did not Elvis follow the slightly diffuse, awkward Trust with Almost Blue, an LP of country covers, only to return re-inspired with his own Imperial Bedroom? As "I Wanna Be Loved" showed, there's a million old soul sides out there, just waiting to be rescued...