There's a definite shortage of cynicism in the record industry these days. Most songs these days have a world view that's so cheerful as to be dangerous or a calculated "serious" outlook designed to sell records (read Madonna). But as far as real, penetrating cynicism goes, it's been in short supply. At least until recently.
Longtime cynics Lou Reed and Elvis Costello both have new albums out, and both discs feature a mature, talented artist ruminating on the unusual state of our world.
Lou Reed's New York is his first album in several years, and without a doubt his best work since the Velvet Underground. The album weighs in at a whopping 14 songs comprising 58 minutes, but thematically it's like one long song. Think of it as a modern version of "New York, New York" without the romance or 1930s musical mentality.
Each song addresses another aspect of New York living, usually with a bitter but realistic outlook that emphasizes the sadness of life in the big city — and life in America — very effectively. In "Halloween Parade," subtitled AIDS, Reed describes a parade and the variety of the participants, but every so often mentions someone not present this year. He never mentions AIDS in the song, but the feeling of loss comes across nonetheless, more power than a song that beats the AIDS angle to death.
There's a definite feeling of desperation to New York, as if Reed thinks life in general is going to hell fast and that only anger and righteous indignation will prevent apathy from winning.
The most outright statement of this attitude is "There is No Time," where Reed basically tells his audience to get up off its collective ass and stop accepting things as they are. It's the evil twin of the car commercials that paint America as a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. Reed doesn't say that America is a terrible place, but he does say that it needs work and action. "This is no time for my country right or wrong / Remember what that brought," he says, and these days that amounts to a radical viewpoint.
The most controversial song on the album is probably "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim." In its infinite "liberalness," Rolling Stone magazine has already taken Reed to task for criticizing Jesse Jackson for his tics to Louis Farrakan. Though it may be a little strong to compare the Rev. Jackson to Kurt Waldheim, Reed is no political novice trying to inject a little timeliness into his music. He's entitled to his beliefs and his right to air them on vinyl.
Elvis Costello has also earned the right to air his beliefs on vinyl, and though Spike isn't as political as "New York," it's a no less penetrating look at society.
Costello has come a long way from his early Buddy-Holly-on-speed image. His music was excellent back then, but his latest album features such a range of styles that Costello's development as a musician is startling.
The most accessible song on the album, and the one receiving the most airplay is "Veronica." It's a very catchy tune that sounds at first like just another love song. It's a mark of Costello's depth and dark humor that the song is actually about an old woman in a world of her own. The song is on her side, however, and it mocks those "who shout her name and steal her clothes."
"Veronica" is the most cheerful song on the album, but unlike New York, this album hides the subject matter of its songs under a stunning variety of styles. Capital punishment, Margaret Thatcher, the afterlife and the ever-popular loneliness are all targets for Costello's biting lyrics and intricate song-stylings. He has help from such luminaries as Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde and T-Bone Burnett, but the overall result is pure Costello.
Spike is an entertaining album, but Costello doesn't want to be a beloved entertainer. He said recently in an interview that Spike the Beloved Entertainer isn't a title. It's a command. Ah, sweet cynicism.