Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rock Bottom: Elvis Costello

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect
that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

Thanks to Elvis Costello, I have to add another Rock Bottom exception. The cover album, while holding the potential to be spectacularly bad, cannot be an artist's worst album. They didn't write the songs and therefore are not fully responsible. If not for this caveat, Elvis Costello's worst album would definitely be Kojak Variety, an all-over-the-map R & B and rockabilly covers collection from 1995. You can't even buy the thing new anymore, apparently.

Since we don't have that option, we'll have to look elsewhere. And we don't have to look far, as both fan and critical consensus center on two albums: 1984's Goodbye Cruel World and 1991's Mighty Like A Rose. Critics seem equally averse to the two. Even the usually-cheery Amazon.com Editorial team calls the latter "the least essential record in the man's catalog."

But the fans are a little more decisive, the contrarians in the bunch having taken Mighty Like A Rose under their wing. However, those few who champion Goodbye Cruel World rarely do so without apology. Add that to the fact that Elvis himself wrote in the Rykodisc liner notes to the CD "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album," and the choice is pretty clear.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the AllMusic Guide, says that Goodbye Cruel World contains "ill-conceived, unformed songs." He then complains about the dated sound of the production, and contradicts his earlier statement by saying "once the sound of the album settles in, the strength of these songs is apparent." Well, which is it Stephen? He also calls the performances by Elvis and the Attractions "uninspired" and "muted."

Amazon.com reviews (as usual) cover the whole range of criticism and are short on detail. Some dislike Goodbye Cruel World's mix of "happy" production and sad/angry lyrics. Others just find the whole thing "dreary and unimaginative." And then there's the perspective of Metal King: "I admit Elvis Costello's body of work is horrible, but he does have one good song in his whole catalog and it's on this album. The Only Flame In Town is by far his best song and is his only song that is worth mentioning to this date (I can't see him writing anything in the future to change this)." Okay, then. Finally, we have A.B., who claims in his review title that, "like sex and pizza, even bad Elvis Costello is still pretty good."

A little background first. Elvis and the Attractions had been on an amazing run of albums starting with the debut, My Aim Is True, in 1977. After that, he released a new classic record every year (in 1981, there were two). In 1983 he teamed up with production team Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who at that point were fresh but flush, having produced hit albums for Madness and Dexy's Midnight Runners (they'd go on to work with They Might Be Giants, Morrissey, and Bush). The results were Punch the Clock, which featured the hits Shipbuilding and Everyday I Write the Book. Based on that success, they decided to try another collaboration for the next album.

But, Elvis had gone through a divorce that year and was not in a happy place. He quickly realized that the tone of the songs he'd written clashed with Langer and Winstanley's production style. After some battles, Elvis explains, they compromised. Some songs got the shiny pop treatment, while others were left (mostly) alone. He calls it a fatal decision, but I don't agree.

The album opens with the previously-mentioned The Only Flame In Town, which features Daryl Hall on background vocals. In sound it's admittedly more Hall and Oates than Elvis Costello and the Attractions, so I can understand why some fans felt betrayed by it at the time. But given the way Costello's style has diversified in the years since (from collaborations with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, and Allen Toussaint to Sinatra-style crooning to country to classical) it now seems silly to hate it because it's too different.

I Wanna Be Loved, a cover of an obscure R & B tune by Willie Mitchell, is the only other song that truly sounds over-produced, mostly thanks to the cooing female background vocals on the chorus and a saxaphone solo in the bridge. It's far from a bad tune though. In fact, Elvis' emotional vocal completely sells the song for me.

Listening to the rest of the album I'm hard-pressed to find much to complain about. The melodies and performances are strong, and the lyrics are uniformly intriguing. Two songs especially stand out as noteworthy. Home Truth is one of those it-kinda-feels-good-to-feel-sad songs that documents a dissolving relationship. "But none of these things seem to matter," Elvis sings, "since we've grown apart / I'd put back the pieces of what's shattered / But I don't know where to start."

Love Field
, the only song from Goodbye Cruel World to make regular appearances on various best-of packages, is the other clear standout. Keyboardist Steve Nieve offers up a carnival organ over a wash of open guitar chords. The Attractions' musical chemistry is clear, even if the lyrics aren't. I've heard this song dozens of times and still can't tell you what a "love field" is.

Most of the other songs fall into the Interesting Album Tracks category. Room With No Number, which would have fit well on Armed Forces, boasts an especially strong Attractions performance. The Madness influnence of the producers is obvious. Inch by Inch has a film noir feel and some great lines ("Take off everything / Or tear me off a strip / Like a lady in the chamber and another in the clip"). The soullessness of modern life is the subject of Worthless Thing, and it has only gotten more topical as the years have marched on.

The Comedians is a shuffling tune with an attractive musical background that obscures the vocals (and thus the lyrics, which address hangers-on). Roy Orbison covered a radically different version of the song on his final album, Mystery Girl. Sour Milk Cow Blues is a strong number with some vaguely '80s effects that make the bridge sound like a Huey Lewis track (to be fair, many members of the News backed Elvis on his debut album), but the lyrics (addressing what it's like to see the person you love become a completely different person) and melody are spot-on.

The Great Unknown mentions Danny Boy (Irish fold ballad) and Delilah (a 1968 Tom Jones song) and the seeming death of the old standards: "What shall we sing / At a wedding or a wake / Whose name shall we cherish / And for whose sake?" Elvis seems to recognize the fleeting nature of popular song, and it's a self-defeating line of thought for someone in his line of work. Cleverly, the final verse also mentions the a mix-up between the songs Wooden Heart (an Elvis Presley tune) and Hearts of Oak (the march of he UK Royal Navy).

The album closes with Peace In Our Time, a sarcastic little ditty about gaining peace through nuclear war. The song offers some pointed words for President Reagan and his Star Wars program: "There's already one spaceman in the White House / What do you want another one for?"

I hope it's clear by now that I don't think Goodbye Cruel World is Elvis' worst moment. Sure, it was a step down from his early albums, but I actually like it a little better than Punch the Clock, and certainly more than some of his later albums. So I turn my attention back to Mighty Like a Rose. Sorry contrarians, but I have to agree with the Amazon Editorial review. While it does contain the classic The Other Side of Summer (and the line "Was it a millionaire who said 'imagine no possessions'?"), the majority of the album is overlong, Dylan-esque rambling.

Anyway, the single greatest thing about Goodbye Cruel World is that its failure in the eyes of its creator led to some self-reflection. Elvis took a year off and ended up making his best album, the wonderful King Of America.

Author's Note: This is album review #206.


DDay said...

I think you should give extra credit to Mighty Like A Rose for containing So Like Candy, a true Costello-McCartney pearl.

Richard said...

You must be so proud of yourself, using Dylanesque as an insult! Sadly, no one but Dylan can really do that sort of Dylan thing properly.

Paul Allen said...

I'll give props to So Like Candy.

And Richard, you are exactly right. Others trying to do Dylan's style never seems to work out well, though when they cover his songs in their own style, it does.

ninecurses said...

'Rose' does include one of his best-ever compositions: 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected', which includes some truly remarkable wordplay set to a melonchaly melody; IMO one of his 5 greatest songs ever. Otherwise I have to agree that the album is his worst, until you get to the truly unnecessary 'Juliet Letters'.