It has been a good year for rock 'n' roll heroes. In April, Elvis Costello, perhaps the most critically acclaimed British musician of the late '70s, embarked on one of the riskiest ventures of his career, a series of solo concerts. The tour was a bravura reaffirmation of his power as a performer. In May, Bruce Springsteen, the most widely praised American rock star of the same decade, stunned listeners with a terrific new single, "Dancing in the Dark." Now come new albums from both — Costello's Goodbye Cruel World and Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. (both on Columbia). Costello, as always, is clever, eclectic and tart while Springsteen, for his first album with his band in more than three years, has written new songs of rare simplicity and depth.
Costello's and Springsteen's feats are a throwback: in the '60s, experimentation and daring new music were expected from stars like the Beatles and Bob Dylan. But when the rock counterculture ballooned into an over-the-counter big business, the ideal of the questing "hero" became risible — the sort of cultural swindle lampooned by David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. Rock today is a theater of cruelty, a riot of irony and exaggerated style, a ritual of adolescent head-banging — anything but a vehicle for shared self-discovery.
Springsteen has aspired to be a rock 'n' roll hero — an ambition that has sometimes seemed a curse. In the past he has strained to give his songs a mythic stature by writing about romantic stereotypes — "tramps like us" — and then by singing the lyrics as if he were trying to belt each word out of the ballpark.
In the better part of Born in the U.S.A., however — and in the album's anthem, "Dancing in the Dark" — his writing and singing have a welcome air of restraint. The single exists in two radically different versions. The original version (which is also in the album) is relatively unadorned; but this week Columbia will issue an exciting dance remix created by Arthur Baker, who recasts the song as a rock 'n' roll symphony in the spirit of Born to Run. In either version, it's a breathtaking record. Keyed to a synthesizer line that sounds like a French horn, the music is sunny and spacious. The relentless, battering beat recalls Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street." The record celebrates the romance of rock, but it's also about the claustrophobia and despair behind that romance. When Springsteen sings "I'm just tired and bored with myself," he captures in a line the listlessness and lack of self-esteem that has led more than one lonely teenager to lose himself in the vicarious excitement of rock 'n' roll.
Springsteen's newfound austerity first became apparent two years ago on Nebraska, an album of downbeat songs he recorded solo, recasting rock in the image of Woody Guthrie's dust-bowl ballads. But this time he evokes the American dream running on empty through music that is brash, clotted, electrifyingly direct. There's never been an Eddie Cochran-style rave-up quite like "Working on the Highway," with its chain-gang lyrics cutting against its good-times jangle. And when Springsteen's voice arches into a falsetto at the close of "I'm on Fire," his eeriest new song, it's one of the purest, most affecting moments on record this year. It will be interesting to see whether Springsteen, in his long-awaited tour that starts June 29, can bring moments like this to life in the context of the larger arenas he will be playing.
While Springsteen has gradually refined a fixed set of musical ideas, Costello remains a quirky and quick-witted formalist, at home in a staggering array of different pop idioms: from country-Western to cocktail jazz. That's one reason why Costello's new album, unlike Born in the U.S.A., lacks a sharp conceptual focus. For Goodbye Cruel World, Costello has produced not only his most frankly commercial pop song yet, "The Only Flame in Town," a buoyant blue-eyed-soul duet with Daryl Hall, but also his most slashing political ballad yet, "Peace in Our Time," an ode to political vainglory from Neville Chamberlain at Munich to Ronald Reagan on Grenada.
What the new album lacks is the sustained intensity of Costello's performance on his recent solo tour. The tour did for Costello what Nebraska did for Springsteen: it forced him to pare his music down to bare essentials, and it forced his audience to meet this music on new terms. At his concert in Boston, where he mesmerized a hushed crowd for nearly two hours, Costello sang material by Brendan Behan and Charlie Rich as well as an assortment of his own songs. His singing has never been more open-hearted, his sarcasm rarely so caustic. The recording of "Peace in Our Time," with its ironic use of chimes and horns, sounds heavy-handed; but in concert, the song had the immediacy — and impact — of a broadside. And when Costello performed Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away," he took a lyric that, in Dylan's own version on Nashville Skyline, seemed merely corny ("love is all there is") and sang it with a passion that suddenly made the song seem profound, prophetic, tragic — a lament for squandered artistry as well as wasted love.
It is remarkable that Costello and Springsteen have both felt the urge to test the limits of their work by treating it, in effect, as a kind of folk music. For both, performing and recording solo has been a way of rediscovering a voice — not just a nuanced singing voice, free from the roar of amplification, but also a compelling artistic voice — a simpler, more "authentic" means of communicating with the audience. Like the folk troubadour — and like the rock 'n' roll heroes of the '60s — they offer their music as a mirror on common hopes and desires. They are both anomalies, old-fashioned performers resurrecting an old-fashioned ethos of integrity. It is a noble part of the rock 'n' roll tradition — one that lesser artists long ago left for dead.