New York Times, July 8, 1984

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Elvis Costello strives toward grown-up pop

Stephen Holden

It had to happen sooner or later. The lean, minimalist rock that seven years ago was labeled "new wave," has ripened into a fleshier, more sophisticated music that wants to be taken seriously as grownup pop. Is it possible for a style rooted in anti-establishment repudiation to mature gracefully without losing its identity as a skeptical, alternative music?

In his 10th album in seven years, Elvis Costello, the most literate and artistically ambitious English new wave singer-songwriter wants to have it both ways, but he has only partially succeeded in realizing a very elusive goal. Goodbye Cruel World (Columbia FC 39429) is an ambitious extension of the touching-all-bases eclecticism that Mr. Costello delineated in his previous two albums. Imperial Bedroom, in 1982, was the first record in which the singer-songwriter consciously aligned himself to the pre-rock songwriting tradition of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, et al., by writing melodies that Frank Sinatra might have sung.

But that alignment was only formal. While Mr. Costello's obsessive wordplay and knack for aphorism suggested a new wave answer to Cole Porter and Noel Coward, the album was a collection of anti-love songs that depicted erotic love not as a culminating social ritual but as a brutal blood sport. In Punch the Clock — and especially in his foggy-voiced interpretation of the song, "Shipbuilding," the singer, complemented by a Chet Baker trumpet solo, seemed to be moving confidently into a cool jazz cabaret style of pop.

In Goodbye Cruel World Mr. Costello's music is even more eclectic. The record is a freewheeling dictionary of pop and rock references that run from Memphis soul to slinky pop-jazz, from Fats Domino to Burt Bacharach to the Beatles. But unlike Billy Joel or Linda Ronstadt, who have had hit albums that affectionately recreate old styles of pop, Mr. Costello re-evaluates the past in terms of his own intransigent musical personality. While he has mellowed somewhat from the sneering, angry young man of 1977, his artistic impulses remain deeply subversive.

Goodbye Cruel World shows that Mr. Costello's respect for intelligent pop craft is still more than matched by his continuing disrespect for the sentimental clichés, happy endings and high gloss polish of both traditional pop and 1970's studio rock. The songs aren't as abusive as those from his early post-punk phase, but they're still unstinting in their pessimistic portrayal of a corrupt world where lovers are the dupes of their illusions and the urges to love and power are inextricable.

As usual, many of Mr. Costello's songs don't present clearcut stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Rather they evoke archetypal struggles from shifting perspectives in images that sketch outlines of scenarios and then leave the details for us to imagine. The successive verses of "The Great Unknown," for instance, tell of a mob murder, describe the destructive sexual powers of a contemporary Delilah, and evoke the cold pomposity of military ritual. These fractured bits and pieces don't add up to a comprehensible narrative but instead create an impressionistic vision of alienation and of individual helplessness at the hands of sinister, indifferent forces. Often the ideas are presented as a mystery to be unraveled out of ambiguous wordplay that obfuscates as much as it tantalizes, with connections that, like the clues in a detective story, lead us down blind alleys.

What's different about Goodbye Cruel World from earlier Elvis Costello albums is its perverse elaboration of an ugly aural style that underscores the bleakness of Mr. Costello's lyrics. The arrangements follow the lyrics in evoking a world that is a tawdry, corrupt junkyard. In glaring contrast to Punch the Clock, in which the singer and his band, the Attractions, paid direct and affectionate homage to Mr. Costello's musical influences, Mr. Costello and his band have inflected the allusions into a trebly, carnival pop style that blends cheesy, percussive keyboard textures, saxes, and trombones into a fussy aural clutter.

The attempt to devise a style of studio pop that is contemptuous of its own sophistication works, alas, only too well. The album's diffuse, tinny arrangements with their Muzak-y frills don't please the ear and have little compensating rhythmic momentum. The arrangements also underscore the limitations of Mr. Costello's astringent, adenoidal voice. In his recent solo acoustic concert at Avery Fisher Hall and in last year's performances at Pier 84, Mr. Costello seemed to have made solid progress as a ballad singer. Incorporating jazz inflections and phrasing into a smoky, insinuating lounge style, he seemed for the time able to contrast his trademarked suspicion and hostility with a sweeter passion and sensuality. But except in his new album's one non-original song, Farnell Jenkins's "I Wanna Be Loved," the arrangements on Goodbye Cruel World don't bring out that aspect of Mr. Costello's singing.

"I Wanna Be Loved," a song very much in the tradition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's ballads for Dionne Warwick, is the kind of straightforward torch song that Mr. Costello would probably write if he weren't so committed to the anti-romantic new wave point of view. The singer's quaveringly intense performance, utterly devoid of irony, is one of the most emotionally convincing of Mr. Costello's recording career.

The album's other high point, Mr. Costello's original song, "Peace in Our Time," succeeds for diametrically opposite reasons. A cheery waltz, with a chorus whose opening phrase, "and the bells," echoes the first measures of "Silver Bells" and "Till There Was You," the song uses a traditional pop form to mount a sneering, photo-negative picture of "peace" in the world today. References to German disco, nuclear testing, the Falkland Islands war, space exploration and Ronald Reagan are compiled into a chilly vision of a world peace on the very brink of disintegration. And because Mr. Costello's tune and lyric are so straightforward, the sour, rinky-tink arrangement makes the whole song a scathing mockery both of official optimism and of officially cheerful pop. In this triumphant reconciliation of pop sophistication and pop junk, Elvis Costello finally gets to have his cake and eat it, too.

Tags: Goodbye Cruel WorldImperial BedroomPunch The ClockCole PorterJerome KernFrank SinatraShipbuildingChet BakerLinda RonstadtFats DominoBurt BacharachThe BeatlesThe AttractionsThe Great UnknownFarnell JenkinsI Wanna Be LovedHal DavidDionne WarwickPeace In Our TimeStephen HoldenScott Weiner

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New York Times, July 8, 1984

Stephen Holden reviews Goodbye Cruel World.


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