When Elvis Costello is cruel, which is most of the time, it's only to be kind. No other song-smith has been quite so consistently cutting with his cunning, and on When I Was Cruel, the artist formally known as Declan McManus has honed his lyrics dagger sharp.
"Speaking for myself I wouldn't take the fame, the fees, the glory / For whoring in the practice of the law," he sings on "Soul for Hire," his commentary on the legal profession. "I want a girl to turn my screw / To wind my watch, to buckle my shoe / And if she won't my mother will do," the Svengali protagonist of "Spooky Girlfriend" sings.
The characters in "Spooky" recall Britney Spears and Lou Pearlman. Several songs on Cruel are protests of and pleas for the current state of pop. "45" and "Radio Silence" recall more halcyon days and media than today's digital, video age. But Costello also knows that music is a reflection of society. So "Spooky" is just one of several songs that portray Western culture's sick fascination with little girls; another, "Episode of Blonde," seems to have been inspired by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.
Cruel is full of trophy wives, perverts, bullies and weasels. Even a love song such as "15 Petals," featuring a runaway horn section, contains a "Mussolini highway" and "polythene face." And yet, Costello would like this cruel world to say goodbye.
On "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," Costello imagines all the commercial moppets, male and female, revolting. On "Dust," a song repeated in two versions, he wants to stop the endless spin-out of this record.
Costello wrote most of Cruel with a low-tech Silvertone guitar and drum machine. He recorded in similar bare-bones fashion, enlisting former Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas on several songs.
The music is as raw as his rage, and yet it's poignant and stately too. On "When I was Cruel No. 2," a sample of a woman singing "un" loops endlessly, as Costello intones the confessions of a bored playboy.
Costello's first album in six years is one of his best. Still, at 15 tracks, it could use editing, especially given its relentless edge.
"Would it kill you to show us a little sweetness," Costello sings on "Tart."