Sounds, June 30, 1984

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Cruel summer

Elvis Costello And The Attractions / Goodbye Cruel World

Jay Williams

One of my earliest impressions of Elvis Costello is of him getting involved in an argument with a bolshy northern punk at a Carlisle gig back in... well, when he was angry, abrasive, calculatedly graceless.

"We can't 'ear yer!" the troublemaker shouted, and it was just my luck to be standing right in front of him. Elvis was pretty cool about the incident (which could have developed into what they call "something nasty") but his obvious embarrassment surprised me.

But like his late great namesake, Costello is only fully articulate and worthy of himself when he is singing songs — and while Goodbye Cruel World is considerably more subdued than its predecessor, Punch The Clock, it retains all the hallmarks, all the catchlines, the bittersweet asides and the emotional intricacies which have come to characterise his work.

I don't want to lift too many one-liners from the mosaic text which is Goodbye... because that would be tantamount to sloganeering. But I don't think anyone can misconstrue "Their hearts are empty when their hands are full / All these new found fond acquaintances / Turn out to be the red rag to my bull" ("The Comedians").

It's a bitter sentiment, and one which crops up throughout the album in different guises, but it's interesting to note that like Punch The Clock, there are light moments: "The Only Flame In Town" for instance, which features a vocal duet with fellow white hope Daryl Hall, or the grow-on-you single "I Wanna Be Loved," a more-ish refrain indeed.

On "Room With No Number," Elvis adopts an almost anecdotal approach lyrically, and there's some evocative interplay between percussion and piano which somehow manages to set the scene as succinctly as the theme itself.

After "Worthless Thing," with its hectic, precise and awe-inspring rhymes (and reasons), "Love Field" is comparatively bereft of arrangement, and the sparseness of the backing — just the faintest touches of guitar giving way to an ebbing, pulsing organ and fairground sweet-notes — lends itself perfectly to Elvis' plaintive vocals.

His natural ability to inject his songs with poignancy is a rare talent and nowhere does it shine harder than on "Joe Porterhouse," a muted requiem for doomed youth (how old were the sailors who died?). If he had just said "Don't let them see you crying", it wouldn't have meant anything. But "Don't let them see you crying THAT WAY" — everybody knows what that means.

Space does not, unfortunately, allow a full synopsis, but suffice it to say that John Cooper-Clarke would have loved to have written "The Deportees Club," and although you'll all be familiar with "Peace In Our Time" by now, it still raises hairs on this back, at any rate.

I'm still trying to work out whether Goodbye Cruel World is a wedding or a wake, but I'm content with the knowledge that Elvis Costello is able (and willing) to produce consistently relevant and thought-provoking music.

A "Man Out Of Time"? No. A man for all seasons.

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Sounds, June 30, 1984

Jay Williams reviews Goodbye Cruel World.


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Photo by Brian Griffin.
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1984-06-30 Sounds cover.jpg


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