Baltimore Sun, May 16, 2002

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Elvis Costello returns to his '70s rocker roots

Elvis Costello / When I Was Cruel

Natalie Nichols

★★★★

So the Mercurial One had enough of ballads and Burt Bacharach and decided to get back to his rocker roots with the help of longtime collaborators Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas. Let the rejoicing commence, because such selections as the kinetic "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" make this stripped-to-essentials collection an even more proper throwback to Costello's late-'70s literate punk-new wave than 1994's Brutal Youth was.

On his Web site, he himself notes the preponderance of distorted tremolo guitar, which pulses darkly through the shambling, Dylan-esque title track and other numbers. But you can't entirely go home again, and, really, who would want him to? All of Costello's crooning years have honed his voice, making it more confident and less strained, so agile that it has more punch than ever.

And boy, does the ever-clever wordplay-meister punch. He turns history and music 'round together in the thrashy-melodic "45," whispers a wry tale of mutual deception on "Spooky Girlfriend" and vividly describes bittersweet on the airy "Tart."

All this brings back flashes of yesteryear, but our 21st-century Elvis no longer explodes with youthful rage. Rather, he slow-burns, muting fury with amusement.

Sure, the angry buzz of "Daddy Can I Turn This?" cuts, but it's the ballad "Alibi" that drips with magnificent disdain and reproach for how we rationalize our transgressions. As fine as the music is, it's Costello's voice, running breathlessly up and down the scale, that gets the message across.

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The Baltimore Sun, May 16, 2002


Natalie Nichols reviews When I Was Cruel.


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