The only reason critics like Elvis Costello, David Lee Roth once quipped, is because most critics look like Elvis Costello.
OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. But it can't be denied that rock critics have virtually been in bed with Costello since the release of his first album, My Aim Is True — they're just natural born suckers for clever lyrics framed by traditional rock arrangements.
One thing about heroes though: Their devotees often hold unreasonable expectations for them. Costello fell from grace when he had the nerve to deviate from the formula that had made him a critic's darling — by softening his lyrics and abandoning traditional rock 'n' roll — on his 1983 album Punch the Clock and his 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World, both recently reissued by Rykodisc.
Sure enough, the man who had won the Village Voice prestigious Pazz and Jop poll for 1978′s classic This Year's Model and for 1982′s overrated Imperial Bedroom, was now being raked over the coals by those who had once felt he could do no wrong.
This held especially true for the universally despised Goodbye Cruel World, probably the most vilified record by a major artist since Bob Dylan's Self Portrait. Notorious rock pundits Jimmy Guterman and Owen O'Donnell dubbed it the 44th worst rock 'n' roll record of all time ("a suicide note for his career"), while Greil Marcus groused it was "the sort of record you stop hearing halfway through a side."
Even Costello himself disowned the record; he begins the liner notes of Rykodisc's reissue by sardonically gushing, "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album."
Naturally, it's not quite that simple. In truth, Costello albums have always been frustratingly inconsistent; objectively, many of them boil down to a couple of strong songs, a few good ones and several mediocre ones.
Costello's lyrical savvy and basic rock orientation masked these numerous shortcomings on My Aim Is True and Get Happy! The tried and true way to get away with not saying much is to be clever, and since both of those records made Rolling Stone's 1987 list of the top 100 albums of the last 25 years, Costello's ruses worked.
In hindsight, Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World probably succeed about as much as most of the other albums in Costello's uneven canon, save the immortal This Year's Model and the criminally underappreciated Trust — in other words, not bad, but certainly not great. So why weren't critics fooled this time around?
The shift in critical reaction to Costello undoubtedly stemmed from the singer/songwriter's unwillingness to play the rock 'n' roller for his audience — judging from Costello's liner notes, that job had become tedious and depressing.
Because his lyrics had gotten gnomic to the point of diffuseness, critics got tired of trying to decipher them, and the "three-piece-suit-and-watch-and-chain" arrangements (as Marcus called them) he began to favor made it worse.
"There isn't much rock 'n' roll on this record," Costello explains in Goodbye Cruel World's liner notes. "Once you get over that, it starts to make a lot more sense."
But like it or not, these two records contain some great songs once you get past your prejudices: the whole first side of Punch the Clock (particularly the subtle anti-war tract "Shipbuilding") and "Inch By Inch," "Worthless Thing" and "Peace in Our Time" on Goodbye Cruel World.
But for the most part, Costello coasts on barely passable material that not only doesn't work in their stilted lounge band settings, but also in the live, solo acoustic versions (some of which are included on the Goodbye reissue) by which Marcus and Guterman and O'Donnell swore.
Supposedly, Costello considered completely scrapping the Goodbye Cruel World sessions for a set that would have recreated how the songs sounded on that well-received solo acoustic tour, but the bonus tracks on the reissue prove that idea to be faulty as well — witness the lifeless version of "The Only Flame in Town," which, given the flavor of the song, makes more "sense" in the cheesy Daryl Hall duet on the released studio album. Unlike Bob Dylan, Costello doesn't have either the guitar or vocal ability to carry a song on his own.
In the final analysis, critics were probably wrong when they disparaged these albums on pure ideological grounds, rather than on terms of sheer quality and consistency. But it could be argued that these two records found Costello working more on craft rather than instinct, a fatal flaw that mars even the best of his early records (and also why the John Lennon analogies don't wash).
Call these half-decent records the beginning of the end, a harbinger of the all-form, no-content, way-too-serious Spike, Mighty Like a Rose and particularly the ghastly The Juliet Letters, Costello's misguided collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet.
In between Punch the Clock and Spike, Costello recorded two very good last gasps, King of America and Blood and Chocolate, the next two titles in Rykodisc's reissue campaign. These fine records — the former a compelling folk-rock record recorded with T-Bone Burnette, the latter a return to form with the reunited Attractions — are very much worth your acquaintance.
As for Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World — well, Costello may be going to far when he jokes "It is a pity that self-loathing wasn't more fashionable at the time." But unless you're an ardent completist or a compulsive consumer, Costello's best work can be found elsewhere.