Stony Brook Press, August 15, 1984

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The secret life of Frank Sinatra

Elvis Costello / Goodbye Cruel World

Paul Yeats

Elvis Costello is an example of the notion that bitterness flows in torrents. Goodbye Cruel World, his latest release, features thirteen songs and is his tenth album in seven years of recording. In addition to being backed by the superb Attractions — Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve handling keyboards (Maurice Worm on the L.P.'s credits) — Costello has enlisted a modest horn section and quality production values in order to create another fine album.

As on 1981's Imperial Bedroom, the sound on Goodbye Cruel World is beyond rock 'n' roll. It is of a very symphonic nature. The numbers are all sonorously orchestrated — everything is calculated and smooth. This is not meant to suggest soullessness, however, the sound is of mature and disciplined songwriter, singer and instrumentalists. Costello's voice, arguably the best around, cascades over emotional crests of accusatory bitterness and outraged innocence to bound abysmally through third-person awareness. Unfortunately some of his slighter intonations are obscured a bit, but a close listen will uncover them.

If an album's title indicates the general slant of its topics and mood, Goodbye Cruel World presents a grim state of affairs. Just as the cover suggests isolation, the cover suggests a feeling of total despondency and abandonment of all hope. This inclination is reaffirmed in many of the songs; there aren't any quote happy songs, though there are some hip-shakers — witness "The Deportee Club" — but energy cannot be equated with happiness.

In a positively fourth street mood, there is a sense of prevailing malice in most numbers. "The Only Flame in Town," which features Daryl Hall on backing vocals, doesn't celebrate love, it erases it: "But you blew hot and cold / Turned my heart to a cinder / And with each passing day / You're less tender and more tinder / Now you're not the only flame in town." "Sour Milk-Cow Blues" rolls really nicely with patented Costello coyote cries and is ostensibly about a girl who has changed for the worse; "They changed your complexion and you personality / Somebody's putting ideas in your head / They took the girl of my dreams and left you here instead." But this cut may also reflect the boxed in feeling Costello feels from his fans, "Start out as lovers and end up as prisoners" and later on, "Now I don't know which is worse / What they're doing to you or what you're doing to me."

Another particularly bloody song, in lyrical content if not presentation, is "The Comedians." Over some extraordinary key manipulations, Costello airs his complaints about his "new found fond acquaintances" and how they've turned out to be the "red rag to his bull." Costello muses that he should be "drinking a toast to absent friends instead of these comedians."

Though timeless politics has been a factor in Costello's work — no direct topics, but a strong humanitarian stance on moral/ethical issues — 1982's Punch The Clock had a very direct comment about the Falkland Islands incident in the song "Shipbuilding." Here Costello continues the trend with a few, rather barbed statements about the world's present nuclear arms situation with "Peace in Our Time." Besides expressing discontentment with nuclear arms, Costello breathes fire at the F.B.I. and C.I.A. while additionally swiping at Reagan's validity to the invasion "Just another tiny island invaded when he's got the whole world in his hands." There is also a slash against John Glenn's hoped for presidential candidacy: "There's already one space-man in the whitehouse, what do you want another one for?"

It is interesting to note that the album was recorded this past February and mixed the month after, so when Costello played here in April, the songs were already set. He knew what he wanted to do with them — he wasn't trying them out to decide upon their arrangements or check out audience approval. What he was doing was bringing a stripped down, essentially more accessible version of his work to the stage in order to emphasize, among other things, content, or message.

Another interesting cut is "I Wanna be Loved," which has a slow soulful chorus featuring its title. Though the sentiment may be an old one, for Costello, the idea of coming out and opening his seemingly cemented heart is indeed new. It is an agonized gesture that some people have mistaken for happiness or a new softness. All things considered, the contents of this record inform one that he is, in fact, still angry, still bitter, still great and finally, still Elvis.


Stony Brook Press, August 15, 1984

Paul Yeats reviews Goodbye Cruel World.


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