Friday, March 16, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Goodbye Cruel World

  Elvis Costello went from singing about "The Greatest Thing" in 1983's Punch the Clock to singing "Worthless Thing" in 1984's Goodbye Cruel World. How does this happen? Divorce.

While the title and subject matter of the songs in Costello's ninth album is bleak and downbeat, the music aims for that stylized '80s pop that continuously betray the dark self-truths in his lyrics. Goodbye Cruel World is another Clive Langer & Alan Winstanley production that fails in trying to repeat the success of Punch the Clock, despite a guest appearance by Daryl Hall and a clear effort to capitalize on the musical fads of the time.

The fatigue from recording nine albums in seven years along with nonstop is clearly shown oin the performances by the Attractions and the singer himself, whose divorce proved distracting and prompted more songs about heartbreak. All the circumstances behind this album led Costello to call this his worst record when signing the worn copy of a Hollywood actor at the set of the movie 200 Cigarettes, according to his liner notes for this record. It's no wonder then that one of the album's highlights and possibly the best expression of how he felt is a cover. 


It took me some time to warm up to Costello's version of Farrell Jenkins' "I Want to Be Loved." I first heard it in a compilation I bought as an introduction to Costello and it was always a track I would skip. It slowly began to seep into my brain, particularly the keyboard part by Steve Nieve. The video above adds so much more to the song.The clip is a perfect single take on Costello who appears in his most vulnerable state while a series of strangers come into the photo booth he is in to give him a kiss. He looks sad almost to the point of tears, giving the song's lament a deeper meaning.

Years later when I bought this album I gained an appreciation for the songs beneath the dated production. "Home Truth" and "Joe Porterhouse" for instance have resonated more with additional years of marriage and closer listening. Recent live performances by Costello have brought me back to "Love Field," though I love the atmospheric opening in the original version, and "Inch by Inch," reminiscent of Peggy Lee's "Fever." Costello's update of "The Comedians" for Roy Orbison has turned the song into one of his buried treasures. 

There is one song I immediately liked when I first heard this album,"Peace in Our Time." While "Shipbuilding" is subtle in it's political intent, this song is weighed down by the many references to the political climate at the time. From taking shots at President Reagan to singing a bout nuclear war, the songs now sounds dated but still remains an idealist's refrain. Costello sings in an understated vocal and plays a simple folk tune on his guitar. He also "played" an anvil giving the song percussion. The songs sounds hopeful and cynical at the same time. After the disparate sounds of the album's first 12 tracks, this song's arrival is a fitting and relieving end.

Classics: "I Want to Be Loved"
Songs I'd like to hear live: "Love Field," "Joe Porterhouse,"  "The Comedians" (Updated version,) and "Peace in Our Time"

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