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Review of When I Was Cruel
Oregonian, 2002-04-19
- Marty Hughley


Costello proves it's good to be king



Elvis is King.

This we know, in part, because his debut album told us so. There it was, "Elvis Is King" spelled out in tiled letters on the cover of 1977's "My Aim Is True." Of course, we're talking about Costello, not Presley.

Though that album design, as well as the very idea of unknown newcomer Declan Patrick McManus calling himself Elvis, was a funny bit of punk-era audacity, over the years Elvis Costello has earned a legitimate place amid rock royalty. He quickly established himself as the most gifted songwriter to emerge in the late-1970s new wave, then went on to show an ever-expanding musical range, creating credible work in the veins of country and classic pop balladry or collaborating with chamber ensembles and jazz composers.

But if listeners need a reason to renew their loyalty, Costello's new album, "When I Was Cruel," due in stores Tuesday, should do the trick.

For this critic, there's often an album that appears by springtime, monopolizes the home-stereo playing time and jumps to the front of the pack for album-of-the-year consideration. This year, that recording is "When I Was Cruel."

Costello's simply too talented to have made a bad album. But too often in the past decade he's gotten by on his prodigious facility with melodic construction, wordplay and imagery. His pop albums have continued to show flashes of transcendence but sometimes lacked focus. He has tended to prune the excess verbosity on collaborative projects such as "The Juliet Letters" (written with classical string ensemble the Brodsky Quartet), but their experimentalism has left some listeners cold.

"When I Was Cruel," though, is the most focused and consistent Costello album since "King of America." Evoking the compositional maturity of 1994's fine "Brutal Youth" and the nervy energy of the early classic "This Year's Model," it crackles with good ideas and confident execution. Lyrics are trim and pointed, melodies sport memorable contours and arrangements sound fresh even when working familiar stylistic templates.

It's a return to the kind of vibrant rock 'n' roll he made with his old band the Attractions, and it's almost another reunion of that band. This time, though, bassist Bruce Thomas, with whom Costello has had a notably rocky relationship, is replaced by Davey Faragher, who has played with Cracker and John Hiatt. Drummer Pete Thomas (no relation to Bruce) remains a marvel of energy, versatility and inventiveness. Keyboardist Steve Nieve delivers smartly understated textures and melodic details. And a horn section featuring the Jazz Passengers' Roy Nathanson and Curtis Fowlkes adds splashes of vivid color, including the rueful yet frenetic breakup song "15 Petals."

There's great variety, too, from the power-pop slam of the wonderfully titled "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" -- a playful take on feminist role reversals -- to the classic melodicism of "My Little Blue Window," the soul groove of "Alibi" and the anxious noise of "Daddy Can I Turn This?" and "Dissolve."

And while it has been a long time since Costello has seemed like a rebel, here he's a rocker with a cause. His guitar work is tart and effective and his singing balances deft, sometimes daredevil phrasing with the kind of gutsy tone that often gets buffed away in the studio.

All in all, "When I Was Cruel" is a brilliant return to form by one of the great musicians of our time. You may not be willing to crown Costello the King, but there's no question he's an ace.


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