Home Read Classic Album Review: Elvis Costello | When I Was Cruel

Classic Album Review: Elvis Costello | When I Was Cruel

The acerbic indie-rock tunesmith is back (for the most part) after eight years.


This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


Elvis Costello has not been himself lately.

At least, he hasn’t sounded like himself. Not for the last decade or so, anyway. Known primarily for his acerbic wit and finely hewn melodies, the singer-songwriter born Declan MacManus spent most of the ’90s trying to escape his pop star image. He teamed up with Brodsky Quartet for the classical “song sequence” Juliet Letters. He collaborated with opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter on an album of pop covers. He joined saxophonist John Harle for some jazzed-up contemporary classics. He recorded old blues songs. He even crooned torch ballads while none other than Burt Bacharach tickled the ivories. About the only thing Costello didn’t do was rock. Admittedly in the process, he did manage to broaden his horizons — even if it did cost him a chunk of his audience.

Now, the last thing anybody expects Elvis to do is plug his guitar back in, put his old band back together and pump it up again. So naturally, that’s precisely what the contrary Costello does on When I Was Cruel, his first full album of all-new solo material since 1994’s Brutal Youth. (I’m not counting 1996’s All This Useless Beauty, since it was mostly older songs Costello had written for other people.) Featuring short, sharp pop nuggets, plenty of Elvis’s trademark acerbic wordplay and two-thirds of his old mates The Attractions, the 15-song When I Was Cruel is the sort of album that critics love to call a return to form. And it is. Kind of.

To be sure, these are some of the strongest and most focused tracks Costello has cut in years, with stripped-down arrangements, less-is-more production and plenty of old-school punky oomph. Opener 45 kicks to the solid beat of Pete Thomas’s four-on-the-floor drums. Tear off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution) shakes its booty to a go-go beat laced with fuzzbox guitar and Steve Nieve’s patented carnival midway keyboards. Dissolve grinds noisily into gear with a dissonant guitar squall nicked from the Sonic Youth fake book. Daddy Can I Turn This churns to a snarling riff and pumping tom-toms.

More adventurous fare like the swampy … Dust and the skronky tango Episode of Blonde have the junkhouse dust and fever-dream vibe of Tom Waits, while 15 Petals is a hard-driving rock waltz with punchy horns straight from a Bollywood action movie. And even though more than a few of these songs — maybe even a few too many — flirt with Portishead trip-hop (When I Was Cruel No. 2, Spooky Girlfriend), white reggae (Soul for Hire, Alibi, Tart) and twangy noir (Dust 2 …), their solid construction and energetic performances keep them from sounding samey or tossed-off.

Costello’s literate lyrics, as usual, add even more personality. Few other writers could get away with barely scannable lines like, “The ghostly first wife glides upstage whispering to raucous talker / Spilling family secrets out to flunkeys and castrato walkers” or “One wine-bar vamp with the polythene face / Ein Panzer Kommander with no hair in place” — whatever the hell it is they’re supposed to mean. It isn’t all nonsensical rhyming-dictionary word games, though. That song 45 isn’t just about old records; it’s also about a year, an age — and a calibre of handgun. “Bells are chiming and tears are falling,” belts out Elvis. “It creeps up on you without a warning / 45.”

Ultimately, songs like that are the thing that keeps When I Was Cruel from being just some phoney “return to form,” or some nostalgic last gasp. Make no mistake: Costello has grown up, both personally and musically. This album reflects everything he’s been through. Sure, he sounds more energetic and fun than he has in ages. But more to the point, he sounds like himself again.