When I Was Cruel
By: Eric Greenwood
It's been a long time since Elvis Costello has released an album that wasn't kind of a chore to sit through. While I respect the breadth of his musical talents on paper, I'm not always so keen on listening to him croon. It's been almost a decade since Costello has even bothered flexing any of his rock muscles. One would have naturally assumed they had atrophied underneath those suits that just seemed to get bigger and bigger with each passing year. Finally, though, Costello has cranked out an aggressive rhythm record. Just in time, too. Another collaboration with an opera singer and I may have thrown in the towel. Not since 1994's Brutal Youth has Costello sounded so vigorous and antagonistic. His pen isn't quite as angry as it was when he really was cruel, but his distinctive melodies are glorious to behold here.
When I Was Cruel is easily Costello's best album since the mid-1980's. The direction is clear and stripped down, and every single song comes up with the goods. Now, I realize that reviewers always say "yeah, this is the best album since blah, blah" because they're excited by the new release. Then a few months go by, the record doesn't age very well, and the review reads like an embarrassing, out-of-touch confessional by some fan-boy. I assure you that's not the case here. Any Costello fan worth his weight in vinyl would readily admit that this record is Costello's finest offering since 1986's Blood & Chocolate. Now I know there are die-hard Spike and Mighty Like A Rose fans out there, but, come on, did you really love those scattered, unfocused albums, or were you just instinctively defensive about you favorite singer's output?
Two out of three Attractions are on board here (keyboardist, Steve Nieve, and drummer, Pete Thomas), making the transition back to punchy rock almost seamless. "45" sets the pace for the rest of the album with its rollicking chorus and traditionally dynamic verses. "45" was Costello's age when he wrote it (three years ago), and he uses the metaphor of the speed of a 45RPM record to tell his autobiography: "bass and treble heal every hurt/there's a rebel in a nylon shirt/but the words are a mystery, I've heard/'til you turn it down to 33 and 1/3." It's a clever gimmick, the likes of which have always flowed freely from Costello's pen, however, not so much lately. "Return to form" is such a tired turn of phrase, but Costello certainly steps into his old shoes without too many hitches.
There's a creepy, noir-ish tinge to Costello's songs these days. His guitar is lacquered with lots of reverb and tremolo to set the appropriate mood. The sinister, dubbed-out bass line in "Spooky Girlfriend" creates an hazy atmosphere in which Costello confesses his darkest fetishes. It's a smart, sexy song with faint horns and a catchy chorus of backing vocals. Costello no longer has to play the jilted geek, as he did so artfully and angrily in his early days. Now that he's an indelible icon, he can toy with his status of muted fame with a sense of humility and self-awareness. The mod-ish, Beatles-esque guitars of "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution)" are bright and rocking. Add to that Costello's acerbic wit and bratty snarl and you've got yourself another classic single to add to the pile.
The title track features a recurring sample of only one syllable from an Italian woman's voice. It's a strangely intrusive sound that melds into the background over the course of seven hypnotic minutes, allowing Costello's foreboding guitar melody (which, oddly enough, sounds like a distant cousin to the line in "Watching The Detectives") to drive the circular, reggae-influenced tune. Costello's in fine lyrical form here, as he narrates an encounter with a journalist/former fan: "and he says, 'I know you'/'you gave me this tattoo back in '82'/'you were a spoilt child with a record to plug'/'and I was a shaven headed seaside thug'/'things haven't really changed that much'/'one of us is still getting paid too much.'" The words sound like they're being spit out of Costello's mouth, which helps keep the lengthy tune tense and interesting through to its end.
Costello slips into the world of sampling and effects so effortlessly that you'd assume he'd always partaken in the fruits of technology, but, apart from remixes on the occasional b-side, Costello has never experimented so freely on an album in his entire career. The loopy, lumbering atmospherics that blanket "Soul For Hire" take a classic Costello melody to the next level, which is necessary when you've got as much material as Costello has to keep from repeating yourself. The syrupy organs that underscore the jaunty, jazzy yet strident "15 Petals" lend an air of deviousness to what would otherwise constitute a typical pop song. Lyrically, Costello is sending a love letter to his wife, but few lyricists could pull off such a concise, literate, and poetic verse and still keep it clever: "15 petals/one for every year I spent with you/jewels and precious metals will never do/I love you twisted and I love you straight/I'd write it down but I can't concentrate/words won't obey they do as they please/and all I am left with are these…"
"Tart" starts off as a low-key ballad, but by the end Costello is belting out the words at the top of his lungs. The climax is perfectly orchestrated with piano and Pete Thomas' instinctive percussion. Noisy, fuzzed out guitars clang obnoxiously throughout the rocking "Dissolve", though, it lacks a proper chorus. "Daddy, Can I Turn This?" turns up the fuzz another notch, and we get the best of both worlds: a catchy chorus and the rock. "My Blue Window" is Costello's best acoustic track since "New Amsterdam", and you'll invariably be hitting the repeat button to hear it again and again. "Episode Of Blonde" separates the men from the boys with its difficult, spitfire phrasing and obscure references, though, it contains this golden line: "so an artist drags a toothbrush across the first thing that he sees/and names the painting "Christ's Last Exit Into Purgatory.'" They may take a few listens to sink in, but all of the songs are memorable and distinctive.
So he's interested in more than rock and roll. He ought to be. He would have been washed up years ago were it not for his dilettantish pursuits. After all, he could have turned out like Sting. Shudder. Fans can often be stifling and selfish, always longing for past glories, so, thank God, Costello pays them no mind. With When I Was Cruel, Costello has bought himself at least another decade or so to dabble in whatever he damn well pleases. I'll certainly keep coming back- not that he cares.