Most stories about Elvis Costello in the last six years lamented the death of punk's angry young man and touted the arrival of Elvis the Mellow Old Crooner.
In reality, the spit and snarl never vanished — he was just stockpiling it for When I Was Cruel, his new CD.
Cruel is likely to be hailed as a rebirth of the rockin' Elvis of yore, coming in the wake of his records with easy-listening pop guru Burt Bacharach and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Print ads are playfully touting the new CD as his "First Loud Album Since 1996."
But the 47-year-old singer insists When I Was Cruel isn't a retreat, it's just the latest step on a long, zigzagging career path.
"This isn't the record where I say, 'OK, people — now we're back to good ol' rock 'n' roll,' like rock 'n' roll is some predictable brand," he says, calling from his home in Dublin.
"I'm just trying to find new ways to make music, just as I've always done. I've written, like, 300 songs (in his career), so I'm never going to stay fixed in one place and time."
Recorded with former Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, among others, Cruel boasts several fast, jagged rockers in the vein of late-'70s classics like "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio." But the disc also features more experimental pieces: The brooding "When I Was Cruel No. 2," for example, tips its hat to the trip-hop band Portishead.
"We squeezed and crushed and distorted the rhythms in all sorts of ways on this album," Costello says. "That was attractive to me after the work I'd been doing with Burt Bacharach, which was gentler music that was more about melody and harmony."
When I Was Cruel also finds Costello thrashing and throttling his electric guitar as never before. He chalks up the dissonant textures and guitar riffs to this "poor, funny little amplifier that I found in a junk shop."
"It was the strangest thing, like a rare orchid or a butterfly. ... It lived until the last day of recording, and just keeled over and died." he says. "And then, three months later, it literally drowned in my storage space when there was this huge flood in Dublin. So I don't know if I'll ever be able to play like that again."
That eagerness to continually climb out on a limb sets him apart in the mostly tried-and-true world of rock. In the early '80s, as his punk and new wave peers were fast turning into self parodies, Costello set off to explore country music on Almost Blue.
In the early '90s, he switched directions again, recording an entire album of classical music, The Juliet Letters, with the Brodsky Quartet.
For all the attention given to his ever-evolving music, Costello is also one of rock's greatest lyricists, penning spectacular riddles about society, politics and the human psyche. While he's always been famous for his caustic wit, several tunes on When I Was Cruel find his acid tongue mellowing.
The epic "When I Was Cruel No. 2" describes a high-society wedding sans the venom and ridicule Costello would have spewed on the story in years past.
"It's a true song, a true telling of the tension between your disdain for people who wield and abuse power, and your instinct to forgive people," he says.
Yet, perhaps the boldest tale on the album is "Dust 2...," which finds the former Catholic schoolboy confronting his thoughts about the afterlife. The tune ends with the line "I believe we just / Become a speck of dust."
"I didn't say I believe we become nothing. I'm saying we become the smallest part of everything, and that's pretty great. That's much better than what we all think we are: The most important thing in the world."