Review of When I Was Cruel
Entertainment Weekly, 2002-04-22
- David Browne
| WHEN I WAS ELVIS Costello returns to his roots
Review: 'When I Was Cruel' among Costello's best
April 25, 2002 Posted: 3:22 AM HKT (1922 GMT)
By David Browne
(Entertainment Weekly) -- On "When I Was Cruel", Elvis Costello
is himself again -- though, at this point in time, you have a right
to ask who that might be. Is it the man who writes music for string
quartets and jazz ensembles? The experimentalist who works with sopranos
and old-school pop classicists such as Burt Bacharach? The ambitious
musicologist who's scored films and even a U.K. TV production of ''Oliver
Twist''? Or is it, for anyone old enough to recall, the pugnacious rocker,
the onetime nervous tic of his generation?
If you were hoping for the last, you're in luck. Bristling with an
electric current that seemingly short-circuited years ago, ''When I
Was Cruel'' is the best work Costello has produced since ''Blood &
Chocolate'' back in the mid-'80s. In the years since, he's delved into
other genres for understandable reasons: to stretch as a musician and,
clearly, to avoid becoming an oldie.
And who can blame him? Many of his punk-era peers have become little
more than nostalgia items, as we were sadly reminded when some of them
were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month. But in
Costello's case, the string of experimental records he's made over the
past decade was one long, imposing gauntlet: the pop albums knotty and
ornate, the non-rock projects revealing the limitations of his vocal
cords and his approach to art song. (The most successful of the bunch
was, surprisingly, ''Painted From Memory,'' his lovely collaboration
with Bacharach.) It was as if primal rock & roll had become an embarrassing
phase he had outgrown.
Pleasing forty-something new wavers
Recorded with two thirds of his long-standing band, the Attractions
(keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas), ''When I Was Cruel''
brings it all back home. The hearts of many forty-something new wavers
will burst through their faded ''Armed Forces'' tour T-shirts when they
hear Costello and the band ripping into the twisted rhymes of ''Daddy
Can I Turn This?'' and, with Nieve's organ churning away, ''Tear Off
Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution).'' No longer sounding like he's
gargling, Costello bites off his words and hits falsetto notes less
laboriously than he has in the past.
For the bulk of the album, though, Costello reaches something more
important -- a middle ground between his vintage and recent selves,
between the bilious and the mannered. As always, the songs are both
autobiographical narratives (the sweet ''15 Petals,'' apparently about
his marriage) and character studies (the angst-ridden lawyer in ''Soul
for Hire''). But the music has a crackling rock-noir immediacy, thanks
to the sharp, bass-driven rhythm section and the baritone jabs of Costello's
The music breathes better than it has in some time: Taut cuts such
as ''Tart,'' which employs the old bitter-beneath-the-sweet allegory,
and ''Alibi'' (''You were weak/You couldn't help it/But you never had
a pony''), are economical in language and feel. What's notable about
''Dissolve'' isn't merely the way he uses that word to describe the
breakdown of emotional and social conditions, but the hip-swinging,
blues-rooted groove he and the musicians employ on it. He's learned
that less -- a James Bond riff here, a dub bass there -- can sometimes
be much, much more.
Can't let go of metaphors
Costello still loves to string together metaphors like they're wet clothes
on a laundry line; by now, it's hopeless to think he'll ever abandon
them. I, for one, gave up on trying to figure out what at least a third
of these songs are about. At the same time, ''When I Was Cruel'' approaches
the subject of the appallingly fast passage of time with a new directness.
The most obvious is the ambitious ''45,'' a number Costello uses in
the song to signify many moments -- the year World War II ended and
his generation began being born, the kind of records he first bought,
and middle age: ''It creeps up on you without a warning -- 45,'' he
sings toward the end.
But he also looks back, albeit obliquely, on his own wicked ways in
the alluring dub tango of ''When I Was Cruel No. 2'' and the floral
pop of ''My Little Blue Window,'' which finds him wanting to be rescued
and changed before it's too late: ''But if I avert your gaze/And I should
become a shrinking flower/Just punch me on the arm.''
Not to worry -- he's already done that himself. In a way, ''When I
Was Cruel'' is a companion to U2's ''All That You Can't Leave Behind''
-- a late-period return to form by an act that wandered off the path
presumably for good. Granted, Costello's next project is his ''first
full orchestral score,'' meant to accompany an Italian dance troupe.
But as he veers off again, in search of a legitimacy he needn't try
to reinforce, at least we'll have this shockingly vital album to keep