"Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album." So begin the liner notes to the Rykodisc reissue of Goodbye Cruel World, and the contradiction inherent in those sentences (sure, he's being candid about the album's quality, but he didn't warn you until you'd already bought the thing, did he?) is a constant theme throughout this mess of a record. When the album first appeared in 1984, Costello had already shown himself to be a master of numerous pop genres, including second-wave punk rock (This Year's Model), Memphis soul (Get Happy), country (Almost Blue) and Beatlesque baroque 'n' roll (Imperial Bedroom). But the man who apparently could write immortal melodies and rich, mordant lyrics in his sleep seemed to be losing control of his muse when this album came out. The simple fact is that Goodbye Cruel World was, and still is, a pretty lousy album. Costello's melodies, usually so,sharp and compelling, meander for the most part like lost drivers in an unfamiliar landscape, while his lyrics vary from &only and obtuse ("You lie so unfolded / In a love field") to gloomy and banal ("Why must I be so lonely / When so many people pass me by"). The production is hardly less perplexing — a dizzying mishmash of electronic effects and excessive arrangements.
So why should you buy it? Well, there's a couple of good reasons, which may or may not be enough to make purchase worthwhile: "The Only Flame in Town," which was a modest stateside hit, is a pretty good song, though the live version included as a bonus tack here is much better. "Inch by Inch," which Elvis completists will recognize as a somewhat altered version of "Little Goody Two Shoes," is Costello at his razor-sharp best, while the bouncy "Worthless Thing" revisits the. same land of charred romance he had claimed as his own years earlier. But rewarding as these hidden treasures are, this disc is still pretty much a fans-only proposition.
Punch the Clock, however, is simply wonderful. I say that knowing full well that some readers will snicker to themselves — when this collection of deceptively fluffy Motown-derived R&B tunes first came out, the reception was mixed. But let' s face it: nobody can listen to "Everyday I Write the Book" without humming it for days afterward, and just about every song on the album matches it for pure pop magic. All the tunes benefit greatly from the crystal clarity of Ryko's remastering; the horn section crackles, the drums snap, and even though this was one of the more slickly produced album's of Costello's career, it never sounds overdone (with the exception of the .digital echo he overlay s on Chet Baker's haunting trumpet solo, a mistake for which Costello still kicks himself). This is Elvis having fun, and even when he's at his most anguished. ("Charm School") or his most abrasive (the beautifully vicious anti-Thatcher tirade "Pills and Soap"), he's clearly rejoicing in the release of making straight-ahead. high quality pop music. The Attractions have never been tighter than they are on this album, either, and you can almost cut the grooves with a knife. Highly recommended.
A note on the bonus tracks: As with all of Rykodisc's Costello reissues, each of the above features numerous bonus tracks. Those who paid attention in the past noticed that the bonus cuts on most of the previous albums were taken largely from Costello's Taking Liberties B-side compilation. Those who pay even closer attention will now begin to notice that the latest reissues are being drawn from Out of Our Idiot, a UK-only collection of B-sides and obscure collaborations. This is frustrating, of course, for those who already own those collections, but Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock both feature several excellent live and demo cuts as well. Particular highlights among those cuts include "Baby It's You," performed with Nick Lowe and "Get Yourself Another Fool," a glorious old torch song. Both of these appear on Goodbye Cruel World, which makes it a somewhat more attractive purchase. But the coolest thing about that album is the secret inclusion of Costello's solo acoustic version of Richard Thompson's "Withered and Died" — it's not listed anywhere on the disc except in the copyright acknowledgements, but it's there as track #23.