College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #176 to #174

176. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Goodbye Cruel World (1984)

Elvis Costello was through with the Attractions. The relationship between Costello and his backing back had been souring for some time, and he reached the conclusion that continuing on was untenable. Certainly, there were other woes rankling him at the time. Costello’s first marriage, to Mary Burgoyne, was effectively over, a casualty of his affair with model and frequent rock star paramour Bebe Buell, and he believed that the songs on his 1983 album, Punch the Clock, weren’t strong enough. Without telling the band, he decided the next album would be their last together, settling on gallows-humor title Goodbye Cruel World for the studio effort.

In part to avoid his fracturing home life, Costello committed himself to crafting new songs in an almost businesslike fashion. He rented a small office and went there on a daily basis to work up the new material, essentially keeping to a nine-to-five schedule like a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith. When Costello got into the studio with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who served the same roles on his preceding record, he initially thought he wanted to record the songs in loose, almost offhand performances. The producers disagreed, prompting an extended bout of indecision for Costello. By his own account, he changed his mind repeatedly throughout the process, causing frustration all around. Costello never settled on what he wanted Goodbye Cruel World to be, so it winds up being not much of anything.

Unreasonable as it is to expect Costello to have remained in a perpetual state of fervid brilliance, as heard on early records My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model, nothing typifies his weaker efforts more than their flagging energy. Goodbye Cruel World has the blandly jazzy “Inch By Inch” and the lukewarm cynicism of “The Only Flame in Town.” “Worthless Thing” is easygoing to the point of lassitude, and “I Wanna Be Loved,” a cover of a fairly obscure soul number released by the act Teacher’s Edition ten years earlier, is woefully limp. At times, it almost feels like Costello’s enthusiasm for a song ebbs as it goes along.

There are still highlights to be found on the album. Especially at this point in his career, Costello in a low gear still had more horsepower that most of his contemporaries. “Sour Milk Cow Blues” has a decent groove and a lithe performance, and “The Deportees Club” has that old bristling energy as it rollercoasters on a track of deftly dazzling verbiage “Tatty beauty talking in riddles/ Rome burns down everybody’s on the fiddle/ Two thousand dollars for wife and some class/ A thousand years drowned in a chaser glass”).

Costello himself settled on a dismal appraisal of Goodbye Cruel World, which was only compounded when he went on tour with T Bone Burnett and gradually worked with the album’s songs until he landed on the arrangements, structures, and performing approaches he felt they should have had on record. Years later, when Costello’s early albums were rereleased, he famously declared Goodbye Cruel World to be the worst of the lot.

175. The Kinks, Give the People What They Want (1981)

“I think the main cause of our popularity is that we have been getting back to a simpler style of playing, which is what we were known for in the beginning,” Ray Davies told the Chicago Tribune shortly after the release of Give the People What They Want, the nineteenth studio album by the Kinks. “We play because we enjoy it, and because we enjoy it, we’re always fresh.”

Commonly perceived as the lovably misfit also-rans of the British Invasion (despite logging three Top 10 U.S. singles during the nineteen-sixties and very beginning of the nineteen-seventies, which is two more than the Who managed in the same span), the Kinks were indeed experiencing a suddenly upswing in mainstream attention as the nineteen-seventies morphed into the nineteen-eighties. Bolstered by the fast-growing album-oriented rock radio format, the Kinks earned their first U.S. gold record with the 1978 LP Low Budget. Following another hit with the 1980 live album One for the Road, they tried to keep the momentum going and wryly reflected that it titling their next studio effort Give the People What They Want.

In particular, Davies tailored his songwriting to strive for mass appeal without compromising his darker instincts. Aiming for the pop charts wasn’t necessarily going to deter him from penning lyrics from the perspective of a pervert ogling girls in the park, on the genuinely creepy “Art Lover,” or concocting a grinding rock song about the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, on “Killer’s Eyes.” One of Davies’s strange gifts is the ability to make the bleak absurdity of life into wild catchy rock songs. With “Predictable,” he makes a rumination on workday drudgery into a sharp, alluring blues-tinged slither: “Go to my office, sit at my desk/ Predictably just like all of the rest./ I sit and I dream about far away places/ Away from the people with frowns on their faces.”

As Davies acknowledge, it’s the garage rock purity of the material that is most appealing on the album, though the garage in question has definitely undergone some sprucing up. “Around the Dial” brings hard rock crunch to a lament for the station of radio, and “Yo-Yo” is a real blazer. “Destroyer” begins with a playful reference to “Lola,” arguably the Kinks’s best known song, before barreling forward with thrilling ferocity. As if offering an antidote to what’s come before, the album closes with the poignant, sweet pop gem “Better Things,” which features Davies convincingly cooing, “Here’s hoping all the days ahead/ Won’t be as bitter as the ones behind you/ Be an optimist instead/ And somehow happiness will find you.”

Give the People What They Want tallied enough sales to nab the Kinks another gold record certification in the U.S., their third straight album to do so. Making a proper return to the upper reaches of the pop charts was still elusive. They solved that riddle with their next studio album.

174. U2, Under a Blood Red Sky (1983)

The title Under a Blood Red Sky refers a concert U2 played at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, located amidst astonishing natural beauty in Morrison, Colorado. The weather on the night of the show at the outdoor venue was bad enough that opening act the Alarm was scratched from the bill. U2 went on as planned, though. There was a film crew there after all, fully prepared to capture the Irish quartet in performance. The band was three studio albums deep into their career when they took the Red Rocks stage and played their anthemic songs in the pouring rain, declaring themselves as ready for rock stardom as manifested by lead singer Bono literally planting a flag during a performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Released on home video in 1984 and snipped into segments for saturation airplay in MTV, is such an integral part of U2’s savvy foundational myth-making that Rolling Stone later declared it to be one of the “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.”

The record Under a Blood Red Sky preceded the concert video by around seven months and did not include that version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The song, which originally appeared on the album War, is represented, but taken from a show in Germany from a few months later. In fact, that Germany performance accounts for more than half of the album, including potent run-throughs of familiar songs “I Will Follow,” “New Year’s Day,” and “’40.'” On record, the echoes of Red Rocks’ crags is honestly heard on only the strong version of “Gloria” and the spindly “Party Girl.” The misleading presentation didn’t matter all that much. As shaped by producer Daniel Lanois, the album feels like a cohesive statement. It gives the impression of a band at a key moment, tipping on the point between cult heroes and superstars.

Under a Blood Red Sky was officially peddled as a mini-LP, despite a runtime that was only three minutes shy of Men at Work’s Business as Usual, one of the mainstays at the top of the album charts in 1983. U2’s label, Island Records, put it at a lower price point, which undoubtedly helped get it into more collections than it would have otherwise. Interest in these up-and-comers was sufficiently stoked. For their next studio album, the assertion that they were ready for the biggest of big times would continue.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.

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