You, me, the music, and me.

Monday, November 28, 2005


Columbia FC 39429 (1984)

In the liner notes to the CD reissue of Goodbye Cruel World, Elvis Costello writes, "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album." Not much of a sales pitch, you may be thinking, but an honest admission nonetheless from a singer/songwriter famous for his sharp, pointed words. Costello's ninth album was largely savaged by critics for its sterile production by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners), but it's actually far from terrible, and contains some of his smartest songs.

1984 wasn't a great year for Costello; his marriage was breaking up, he was feuding with his bandmates, and his record company was pressuring him for a more commercial sound on his next album. He had just finished a solo tour in which he played many of his new songs with just piano or guitar accompaniment (some of which can be heard as bonus live cuts on the album's CD reissue), and at one point he considered recording this album that way. Columbia had other ideas, of course, and paired him with the British hit-making team of Langer/Winstanley, producing some odd results. "Room With No Number" is a harrowing tale of adultery and deception that gets tangled up in clattery percussion and busy piano tinkling, and it basically goes by too quickly for the lyrics to fully register. "The Only Flame in Town", a duet with Daryl Hall, was a medium-sized hit, but its syrupy, synthesized strings and upbeat production contradict its dark portrait of a man trying to justify his cheating ways. "The Comedians" contains some of Costello's most cryptically caustic lyrics (and was later covered by Roy Orbison) but is sabotaged by the overly perky arrangement. (The fact that the song is about a man who is unsure of who his real friends are shouldn't be lost on anyone.)

Not everything is a misfire, however; "Peace in Our Time" is a biting anti-war ballad with a spare, tasteful arrangement that takes a swipe at then-President Ronald Reagan ("There's already one spaceman in the White House/what do you want another one for?"); according to critic Robert Christgau, Costello nearly got booed off the stage of the Tonight Show while performing it. "The Deportees Club" is a fiery rocker that bravely fights off synths right and left with guitars blazing, and "I Wanna Be Loved" is an undeniable classic, the one point on the album where the production works for the song instead of against it; Costello's mawkish self-pity is buoyed by waves of synthesizers and female voices cooing in the background, and the lyrics are some of the most straightforward he's ever written.

Costello would bounce back strongly in 1986 with a pair of brilliant albums (King of America and Blood & Chocolate) that rank among his best, but Goodbye Cruel World should be remembered as more than just another eighties misfire; the album is full of great songs, but you may need to dig through a few layers of (over-)production in order to find them.


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