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Review of When I Was Cruel and interview
Pulse, 2002-05-01
- Alan Di Perma



Elvis Costello emerges from mid-life crisis with best album in years.

"I just got back in the mood to do this," says Elvis Costello. He's referring to his new album When I Was Cruel (Island). It is easily the strongest Elvis Costello album to come along in a while, and arguably one of his finest ever. After consorting with jazzmen and opera stars, after acting in films and composing chamber music, Elvis has returned to what many feel he has always done best--edgy, literate pop songs driven by the scrappy eloquence of guitar chords and pounding beats. The album's production values are completely contemporary--spare, grainy and stylistically polygamous. But the songs' biting wit and razor-sharp melodies will inevitably invoke comparisons with the vitriolic Elvis Costello of 1977's This Year's Model--a prospect that is profoundly distasteful to the disc's creator.

"This is not 'back to' anything," he insists. "I'd be very surprised if anyone thought this sounded like This Year's Model. It's just that I have an angry-sounding voice--in the same way that I have a very melancholy sort of face. You can't help something like that. Even as a child, I was always picked to walk in behind the bishop when he visited our school--because I looked more solemn than the other kids. Not because I was more holy or better behaved or anything, but because I had a miserable face. And I think that kind of thing actually helps you in life. You find yourself being handed these roles. But there's also a wild amount of humor on this record. You would mislead yourself not to pay attention to that."

Lounging in a bungalow suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, sporting a brown leather coat, yellow-tinted shades and a pair of thermal bedroom slippers, Costello doesn't look particularly miserable. Just a little harried. After a day of interviews, he has to run off to the studio to oversee a recording by soul legend Solomon Burke--a track called "The Judgment" that Costello and his wife, former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, wrote specially for Burke. Next day, Elvis has to present a Grammy, and a week later he must fly to England to supervise the recording of his first full-on orchestral score, "Il Sogno," with the London Symphony Orchestra.

James Brown may be the hardest-working man in show business, but Elvis Costello's resume is far more diverse. An insatiable music lover, he can discourse knowledgeably and copiously about everything from Baroque canzonetti to Ethiopian pop. His wildly ecumenical tastes have led him to amass an almost schizophrenic roster of projects. Which is one reason why it's been so long since we've had a "proper" Elvis Costello album. When I Was Cruel is his first non-collaborative album of brand-new material since 1996's All This Useless Beauty.

"It's an all-consuming thing to work with Burt Bacharach or write an orchestral score," he says. "You can't do any of those things halfheartedly. You'd be cheating your collaborators and really insulting the audience. I feel I owe it to myself to have the experience of these projects as they come up. I don't worry about the continuity of my career. I don't even think about that."

The origins of When I Was Cruel actually sprang from another of Costello's many side projects, a 1999 film called Prison Song--"a hip-hop opera," as Elvis describes it, conceived by Darnell Martin and rapper Q-Tip. The undertaking yielded one song that ended up on When I Was Cruel instead: a gray study in futility and self-contempt called "Soul for Hire." It also introduced Costello to the idea of creating songs from a rhythmic base built up from samples.

"I got this idea to make a drum kit out of sounds from a classroom," he says, "which is where one particular scene in the film was set. The hi-hat would be paper rustling and the bass drum would be a chair dragging across the floor. So the song would emerge from the sounds of the room."

The experience inspired Costello to take a similar tack on his new album. By this point, a production team had coalesced, consisting of Costello and three relative unknowns--Ciaran Cahill, Leo Pearson and Kieran Lynch--all operating under the nom du guerre the Impostor, a name caged from a Costello song title, pseudonym and short-lived record label of the early '80s. The dean of witty, post-punk songcraft started mucking around with cheap drum machines and a battery-powered sampler.

"Obviously, I'm borrowing techniques that are very familiar to people who make dance records" says Costello. "But they're brand new to me. What wouldn't have been brand new would be to go back in the studio with a four-piece rock band and act like nothing had changed since the last time I'd done that, circa 1994. Also, it was great to be working with younger engineers who don't have a set idea as to who or what I should be. I certainly have no such idea."

But fate, as it turned out, had a four-piece rock band waiting in the wings. While working on When I Was Cruel, Elvis was invited to make guest appearances at two concerts--one headlined by Robert Wyatt and the other by Bob Dylan. In need of a backing band, he hastily drafted two frequent collaborators and members of his original group, the Attractions: keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas. The duo joined forces with a newcomer, American bassist Davey Faragher, in accompanying Costello onstage. After the two shows, says Elvis, "I now had this band that was all tuned up and ready to go. So, they just came in for some sessions for the album. The band played for six days, and then Steve Nieve and I did a seventh day and cut the song 'Alibi.'"

Working at Windmill Line in Dublin, Costello ended up taking a hybrid approach on When I Was Cruel, blending live playing with layers of sampled, programmed, processed rhythm. "There's a ferocious amount of bass--more than on any record I've ever done," he adds with discernible pride. "And that was very consciously informed by what I listen to--which isn't rock. I don't like rock. It's all square. It doesn't swing. I listen a lot to the sonics of modern r&b--and occasionally the melodies, particularly on the pop end. People go on about, 'Oh they don't write songs like in the old Motown days.' But I think 'Say My Name' is as good as any song that Holland/Dozier/Holland ever wrote."

Indeed, the stark sidestick groove and minor-key verses in When I Was Cruel's "Tart" wouldn't be out of place in a Dallas Austin production. And the "do-do-do" vocal line in the creepily lecherous "Spooky Girlfriend" could have been written for TLC or Destiny's Child.

"Originally, I wanted to get one of those female r&b pop groups to sing on that," Elvis discloses. "But I thought it might make it too much of a gimmick. Besides, asking one of those r&b girl groups to sing along to 'Spooky Girlfriend' ... they might take it the wrong way, you know?"

"When I Was Cruel No. 2," the album's epic title track, is a masterpiece of embittered observation, set to the rhythm of a two-bar sample from an Italian pop record. The looped groove contains just one syllable of a female vocal--a mysteriously emotive blip that repeats over and over like a broken record left spinning at the scene of a film noir murder. The drama is intensified by Elvis' tremolo baritone guitar--a sound reminiscent of his classic "Watching the Detectives." This becomes the musical setting for a garish masque of the vanities. A society wedding reception is seen through the eyes of a detached yet deliciously catty observer. ("She was selling speedboats at a trade show when he met her," he says of the bride.) You get the sense that the narrator might be a disgruntled ex-lover. But Elvis shoots down this theory.

"Actually there was an earlier version of the song that was rooted in some romantic disappointment or betrayal. But that limited it somehow. That's why this one is titled 'When I Was Cruel No. 2.' The panorama that's being examined in the song is more to do with finding yourself in company that you might once have disdained. Not because you've now become one of those people, but because some chance set of circumstances has brought you among them. The jester of a court, if you like. And at this court there are people of power and substance: corporate businessmen, politicians and newspaper editors of a more despicable stance.

"Obviously, I spent quite a lot of time writing songs about just such people when I was younger. But I wrote very much from the outside. Once I was in their company, I had a different reaction to them. I didn't like them better than I used to, but I didn't need quite so much force with which to disdain them, 'cause they were already doing it for themselves. There's an absurdity to that that attracted me. I'm not denying a line of what I wrote when I was younger. I just have a different perspective now."

Maturity is the subtext to much of When I Was Cruel. Another key song is "45," a rumination on time's swift passage that Costello says he actually wrote on his 45th birthday. "I don't think there were any rough drafts at all. It all just appeared one afternoon. Sometimes that happens, and then other times you might wait years to come up with a song."

Where other songs on the album are sprawling, hallucinogenic and cloaked in mystery, "45" is remarkably concise--a metaphysical conceit that showcases Costello's formidable lyrical discipline. Forty-five is not only the author's age, but also the year (1945) when his parents' generation came back from WWII to start the baby boom. Moreover, 45 stands for the 7" vinyl discs that shaped the life trajectory of baby boomers like Declan MacManus. With suitable New Wave vigor, the song charts the musical passion that led the London-born MacManus to change his name to Elvis Costello and ferment the punk-era revolution. It is one of the most unguardedly autobiographical Elvis Costello songs ever written.

"But at the same time, I'm almost certain there are people listening to it who recognize themselves in it," adds the song's author. "And that's really the intention of writing a song. It's a shared experience. '45' is a joyful song as well. It's not a melancholy song in the slightest."

But much of Costello's work in the past 10 years has been charged with melancholy, not to mention an almost self-conscious pursuit of "grown-up" musical genres. His collaborative album with Burt Bacharach, 1998's Painted from Memory was as "adult" as it gets. And in his work with classical artists such as the Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters, 1993) and opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter (For the Stars, 2001), Costello invented a whole new lyrical mode for himself--rarefied, literary, sepia-toned. The solitary T.B. victim in "Just a Curio," and the aging, spurned lover in "No Wonder "wouldn't be out of place in T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," or one of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues.

"I think 'No Wonder' is one the best things I've ever written," says Costello. "I very consciously wrote this stylized 19th Century ballad for Anne Sofie to sing. The lyrics to 'Just a Curio' has something of that about it, too."

It seemed as if the middle-aged Elvis had determined to abandon the youthful exuberance of rock 'n' roll for good. "After I wrote Mighty Like a Rose [1991], I became more concerned with writing beautiful songs," he says. "Because I felt there were some very lovely melodies on the Mighty Like a Rose album--songs like 'Couldn't Call it Unexpected' and 'All Grown Up'--that I didn't serve very well, because of ideas I had in my head about how I should sing."

Despite the considerable merits of these works, there's something sad in their underlying assumption--Costello's decision that someone "All Grown Up" shouldn't do rock 'n' roll. In retrospect, he acknowledges as much.

"I was in a much less positive frame of mind when I recorded All This Useless Beauty than I am now. Particularly when I was performing 'I Want to Vanish.' Even though that was originally written for June Tabor, it was about the most personal song I'd ever sung. Essentially, it was saying 'the game is up.' But of course the game isn't up. I felt older when I was making that record than I do now. I felt like I was detached from the rhythmic motor of music, because I felt that was totally the product of youth. Now I don't think that way anymore. And I think I mainly got that from older artists in the world who are inspiring. Bob Dylan's last couple of years give you reason to believe that an artist can carry on making great work. Age is not important. It's how sharp you are and how true you are to what you believe in."

It's intriguing to speculate on the role of Cait O'Riordan, Costello's wife and musical partner since 1986, in keeping him sharp and true. One of the sweetest songs on the new album, "My Little Blue Window," certainly scans like a love song to Cait.

"It's about having someone who's enough of a lovely or loving hooligan to smash through your defenses when you can only see things in a negative way," Elvis explains. "Of course you're only seeing that way because you haven't turned your head back into the light. And when you're in that state, it's like staring through blue glass. That's the song's poetic device. And I know it's true because I wore blue-tinted lenses for two years and I became terribly depressed. I remember meeting Barbara Orbison years ago, before I met Roy, and she said, 'I knew it was you, because you're the only person other than Roy who would sit in a crowded, dark restaurant wearing blue lenses.'"

Now that Costello's smashed through his own blue window and is back in the mood for aggressive, uptempo music, is he going to stay that way?

"I certainly hope not," he laughs. "To be like this all the time would be unbearable. It's something that can only come to you now and again. My next record could be totally different. That's why life remains interesting and doesn't get in a rut. I know that's not good news for the record companies, because they always want you to make another record that's just like your last successful one. But let's be realistic. That's never how I've operated."

By Alan Di Perna

All text, images, and media Copyright 2001, MTS Inc., All Rights Reserved.


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