Elvis Costello is so perverse. Last year, he put out one of his most accessible albums ever, Punch the Clock, and it even yielded an MTV hit, "Everyday I Write the Book." Earlier this year, his American solo tour revealed what an extraordinary and openhearted singer he can be. Now, Goodbye Cruel World, his tenth LP, reverses the trend — it's as murky an album, musically and lyrically, as Costello has ever made.
The record's clearest and most forceful songs, which fill up the first side, concern relationships. "Home Truth" is a classically rancid Costello vision of romance as love sustained by lies; "Room with No Number" is a rinky-dink comic melodrama about the hotel rooms reserved for illicit lovers. As usual, the music often undercuts the lyrics, sometimes wittily. "The Only Flame in Town" opens the album with a happy, soulful sax line and keyboard groove, but the lyrics are clipped, clever and accusatory: "You blew hot and cold / Turned my heart to a cinder / And with each passing day / You're less tender and more tinder." Meanwhile, "Love Field" ends the first side with lovely, floating organ chords and a comfy cushion of sighing voices, over which Costello sings unromantic lines like "Feel the anxious rhythm of a functional stranger."
But on the second side, most of the songs are clotted with dense, contorted writing and cryptic personal references. What does the buried Samson-and-Delilah reference in "The Great Unknown" have to do with the first verse's Mafia killing and the last verse's "cannon fodder"? Who is the habitué of "The Deportees Club" who prays for "the secret life of Frank Sinatra" and declares, "In America the law is a piece of ass"? Lurking underneath these numbers seems to be some kind of brooding political commentary, but it only really surfaces on the last track, "Peace in Our Time." With its stately church organ, the song sounds like a Sunday-school homily, but in reality it's a savagely ironic recognition that, for all the platitudes about world peace, an awful lot of people actually can't wait for war, even annihilation.
While willful obscurity is not new to Costello, on Goodbye Cruel World it seems to result from the conflict he feels as a composer torn between the craftsmanship of classic pop and the spontaneity demanded of rock & roll. It's as if writing one too many tidy masterpieces like "Kid about It" or "Shipbuilding" creates an allergic reaction that he treats by writing whatever comes into his head. Sometimes, however, Costello strikes the right balance between craft and intuition, and the major new song on Goodbye Cruel World is a prime example.
"Worthless Thing" seems to start off as an attack on the shallow starmaking that MTV has made possible — "You can live forever in a split second of fame / Come on down, the price is right, what's-your-name" — but then it turns into a diatribe against Elvis imitators before returning to a fairly explicit jab at rock video. It's a terrific cut with a bracing tune, a singable chorus, even lovely guitar work. Unfortunately, it's a rarity on this album.