Elvis Costello: A Cruel Appreciation
It is 1984. I am 16 years old. And for reasons that shall now cause me to fall into the passive voice, the new issue of "Playboy" magazine has found its way into my hands. Despite an awareness of the carnal wonders that wait inside the pages, and despite feeling the potent hormonal urges common to most adolescent boys, I – a burgeoning music obsessive – do as I always do on such occasions.
I open straight to the record reviews.
There, I find a small parcel of words that will change my life, a six-sentence review that I can still recite from memory, as if it were a Shakespeare soliloquy or a passage from the catechism:
“There’s not much you need to say about Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ (Columbia). It’s great. Buy it. It may be the best so far from ol’ four-eyes. It’s thick with synth funk and features harmonies by Daryl Hall. There are 13 tunes here, and not one misses.”
I rush to the mall and run into Musicland, head for the wall of cassette tapes, snatch a copy and pay. I unwrap it on my way through the parking lot, pop it into the dash and begin a relationship that has lasted more than three decades. In that span, I have bought the album four times – the original cassette, a compact disc, the deluxe CD reissue and, finally, my recently-purchased copy on pristine 180-gram vinyl. I will not tell you that it is one of my ten favorite albums of all-time, but I can safely say that there are fewer than ten albums that I have listened to more frequently.
Which makes this next thing all the more painful to write: “Goodbye Cruel World” is a terrible album.
At least that’s the consensus that has grown around it, a charge led by no less than Costello himself, who began the liner notes to the 1995 reissue with the words “Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album. At least that is the impression that I have given over the years and I am sure that you could find many people who would agree with me.”
Though reviews were a bit all over the map upon the album’s release (the "Playboy" take, it happens, was an outlier), this is a view that has calcified over time. The website AllMusic retroactively gives “Goodbye Cruel World” two stars (the Starship album “Knee Deep in the Hoopla,” which includes the universally-reviled “We Built this City,” gets the same grade), and Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent edition of his popular podcast “Revisionist History,” uses the terrible-ness of the album (and the song “The Deportees Club” in particular) as a jumping-off point in a discussion about how genius works. The episode is worth a listen.
It’s rare for an album by a great artist – especially from a great artist still in his prime – to produce such unanimity of negative opinion.
The release of “Goodbye Cruel World” came toward the end of the decade of genius that began Costello’s career, a span that included ten albums of original songs (more than half of them unanimously regarded as classics), a collection of country covers, and a compilation of b-sides and outtakes. No one since the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan can surpass the quantity and quality of work that Elvis did in those ten years.
Therein lays the problem – or at least the problem that some people have – with “Goodbye Cruel World.” It’s too conventional, and too dated, for its own good.
Elvis Costello first made his name as rock’s Angry Young Man with punchy and confrontational songs that married punk-rock urgency with a more literate approach to songwriting. And even as Costello mastered a more sophisticated musical approach on albums such as 1979’s “Armed Forces” and 1982’s “Imperial Bedroom,” he retained a sense of daring that marked him as an artist working outside the mainstream.
Then came 1983 and the pinnacle of pop music, a time when Michael Jackson and Prince reigned, when David Bowie and Talking Heads made their plays for mainstream stardom, when punk and new wave evolved into New Romanticism and gave us Duran Duran, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet.
What’s an angry young to do?
In a reflection of (or a concession to) the times, Elvis Costello entered the studio with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had also produced his 1983 album “Punch the Clock,” and had helped to give it the smoothed-out edges that differentiated it from all of his previous work. But on “Goodbye Cruel World,” Langer and Winstanley (the production team behind Dexys Midnight Runners’ smash album “Too-Rye-Ay”) take it a step further and give Costello’s music a sound so seamless and supple that it’s hard to believe that it’s by the same band that bashed out songs as raw and electrifying as “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding.”
In other words, it sounds just like 1984, even down to Daryl Hall’s guest vocal on “The Only Flame in Town.”
In an interview on Gladwell’s podcast, Clive Langer describes the uncomfortable process of making the album, when a conflicted Costello (who was ambivalent at best about pop stardom) was flirting with the idea of retiring altogether. And while the music (save for the caterwauling “The Deportees Club”) may have featured smooth-polished surfaces, the lyrics retained Costello’s prickly bite. Imagine what it was like for a 16-year-old kid with a budding notion of being a writer to hear this for the first time:
While a crocodile makes good shoes and a dog may change his coat
I can’t change what’s written on your face tonight, and I quote
“Oh, I wish you could see
Quite how much you could mean to me
You worthless thing
If you were ten feet taller and almost handsome
I might pay this king’s ransom
You worthless thing”
That’s a high-flying bit of sexual combat, with a woman simultaneously building up and chopping down her man, explaining in just a few words how he’s less than she deserves because he’s less than he could be.
The album plays out this way, through and through, from “Home Truth” (“I hung up the phone tonight/Just as you said ‘I love you’/Once this would have been coincidence/Now these things start to bother me”) to “Room With No Number” (“And I wish he could be/The man he was before he was me”) to “The Great Unknown” (“My, my, my Delilah, who’s the butcher that you harbor?/Take the rich man to the cleaners and the strong man to the barber”). The pleasing melodies and spotless production are cut, time and time again, by a wordplay that is both whimsical and cynical, making the terrible thoughts that people have too delicious not to say out loud.
I don’t care what Malcolm Gladwell or even Elvis Costello say. I love this album.
But there is still the question of why this one above all others. For the most part, my very favorite recordings (“Revolver,” “Exile on Main Street,” “London Calling,” “Astral Weeks,” to name a few) are universally acclaimed. My affection for “Goodbye Cruel World” stands completely out of proportion with its critical standing. And the reason may be as simple as this.
It was the record I needed at the time.
In 1984, I was living in my fourth state in four years, at a stage in life when that kind of upheaval felt more than a little isolating. There are worse predicaments for sure, but being the new kid when you’re 13 and 14 and 15 is more than a little disorienting. And when I was looking for something to hold on to, along came an album with words that captured my imagination and music that I could easily digest.
I’ll always be grateful to Elvis Costello for making such a terrible record when I needed it most.
I’ve long suspected that Elvis doesn’t really hate the album. Instead, it just represents a time when he felt lost. He hates the memory, not the music. But just like Malcolm Gladwell’s story of how Costello reclaimed “The Deportees Club” and made it something special (really, listen to the podcast), when Elvis played the Uptown Theater a year and a half ago, I was in the audience as he reclaimed “Worthless Thing” and “Love Field,” playing them solo, stripping away the sound of 1984 and letting the words speak again just as powerfully as they ever had.
There was never anything wrong with “Goodbye Cruel World.” Elvis Costello was just a man out of time.
(Elvis Costello plays at Johnson County Community College on Friday, October 7)