Over the last decade, no songwriter has been more socially provocative and lyrically inventive than Elvis Costello. His songs are as disquieting and elusive as Magritte paintings, darkness in light (and vice versa). His songs are vignettes bustling with sinewy melodies, essential images and intricate emotions that demand intense listening.
Musically, Goodbye Cruel World, his latest album, is as tautly coiled as last year's Punch the Clock, though Costello himself seems slightly less despondent about the rising casualties in the fields of sexual politics and political bullydom. Not that the songs aren't full of his classic bitter asides: On the somber "Home Truth" he snarls, "Is it my shirt or my toothpaste / That is whiter than white? / Is it the lies that I tell you / Or the lies that I might?" Elsewhere Costello points out that "Even an inferno can cool down to an ember," though that has yet to happen to him.
Although there are a few duds here (on "I Wanna Be Loved," Costello makes like Michael McDonald and on the sassy "Only Flame in Town," he plays John Oates to Daryl Hall), most of Cruel World is just that: cruel ("Worthless Thing"), and confusing ("Sour Milk-Cow Blues") and anxious ("Room With No Number"). Costello is at his caustic best on the album's last three songs, "The Great Unknown," "The Deportees Club" and his anguished and eloquent plea for "Peace in Our Time," his most Dylanesque song ever and his best anthem since he recorded Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit is the latest from Costello's longtime pal and continues Lowe's expeditious mining of rock's treasured past. Part of the fun is pinpointing the musical references: For starters, try to identify the dead-in-plane-crash rockers whose styles are echoed in "You'll Never Get Me Up in One of Those," the guitar/surfer band allusions in "Awesome," and the girlie songs in "Maureen." There are also affectionate tributes to Buddy Holly ("Break Away"), Blood Sweat and Tears ("L.A.F.S."), the Coasters ("Hey Big Mouth, Stand Up and Say That") and Dire Straits ("The Gee and the Rock and the Three Card Trick"). Some fashions may never go out of style, but they only look good on the right people.
Costello and Lowe appear Friday at the Merriweather Post Pavilion; Lowe appears Sunday at the Bayou.