|The Elvis Costello
Review of When I Was Cruel - "should win awards"
Costello is back with a twang. . . ; review
TIM DE LISLE
Elvis Costello When I Was Cruel ****
Years can go in and out of fashion, just like sounds and styles. At
the moment, 1977 is all the rage. Skinny ties are being worn; the Sex
Pistols' God Save The Queen is about to be rereleased and The Strokes
have made it big by imitating all the American new-wavers of the Seventies
in one go.
Elvis Costello's first LP, My Aim Is True, was Rolling Stone magazine's Album of the Year in 1977. His umpteenth record, When I Was Cruel (Mercury, out tomorrow), should win awards 25 years later.
Back then Costello was 21, skinny, bespectacled and angry. Now he is 46, chunky, bespectacled and angry. A close examination of his lyric sheets shows that in 25 years he has mellowed by about two per cent.
His recent records have been collaborations with birds of a very different feather: the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the easy-listening deity Burt Bacharach among others. After all those years with the Attractions, he was in danger of becoming Elvis Costello and the Distractions. Now he is back writing all by himself, as befits one of rock's most singular composers.
Not that he is revisiting old ground. For this album he adopted a new method, composing with a drum machine as well as a big twangy guitar, and hit on a new sound which, as was famously said of jazz, is easier to recognise than it is to define. It is stripped-down, grown-up jazz-pop with the drums as lead instrument, taken a lot faster than you might expect.
'After singing so many ballads in the last few years, it was time for a rowdy rhythm record,' Costello has said. 'We used a highly skilled team of musicians and engineers to ensure that we did not accidentally make a record that had been previously released.' His tongue is half in his cheek here: two of the core band, Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve on keyboards, are members of the Attractions who have been with him on and off throughout his career.
But they have never sounded like this before. Thomas is reinvented as a drummer of demented daring, while Nieve alternates between wistfully elegant grand piano and dabs of punchy organ.
The vocals and the lyrics needed no revamping. Costello wouldn't win many prizes at music school but few voices in pop have as much personality or command of tone, from acid through to honey.
One day, in an American university, someone will catalogue all the words Costello has added to pop's vocabulary.
This album will offer elocution, speedboats, castrato walkers, newspaper editors, eau-de-nil, Panzer, fountain pen, insinuate, cellophane, bandeon, insecticide, toothbrush and shellac.
Occasionally, Costello has made his fans feel like people watching someone else do the crossword, but here there are plenty of sharp observations amid the wordplay. 'Gangsters and world leaders require the same protection from attack' ...'She slaps your face like a tambourine' . . .'Every Elvis has his Army'. And 'I can't hear you 'cos we're breaking up' is a typically crafty use of mobile-speak.
One-liners are all very well, but it is songs that make an album. There are four or five here that should become classics: 45, an 'arithmetical autobiography' which is finger-clicking good; Alibi, half pop song, half courtroom drama; Episode Of Blonde, a Tom Waits- like narrative; Tart, a bitter minimalist ballad; and When I Was Cruel No. 2, an epic depiction of multiple marriage.
As the title hints, this is not a comfortable record. But we already have quite enough of those. It is a CD packed with wit and invention, and we don't have many of those at all.