Fans holding their breath for more of the immaculately crafted cynical pop that put Elvis Costello on the map have already gone blue in the face ten times over: Costello has spent most of the last decade making a garish display of his alleged artistic range, collaborating with the likes of Burt Bacharach, the Mingus Big Band, Bill Frisell, Anne Sofie von Otter, and, on a forthcoming project, the London Symphony Orchestra.
The new When I Was Cruel (Island), recorded with drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve from his longtime backing band the Attractions, is his first rock album since the weak All This Useless Beauty in 1996 — and with its terse guitar riffs, acidic lyrics, and drum-tight arrangements, it's also his most enjoyable since Blood & Chocolate a decade earlier. If I believed Costello was going to return to what he does best full-time I'd be more enthusiastic, but it's hard not to see When I Was Cruel as another genre exercise (so what if he invented the genre?). Inevitably he can't always live up to his past triumphs: the refrain from "Alibi" ("'Cos I love you just as much as I hate your guts") blurts out the subtext of nearly every love song he's ever written, and the over-the-top cleverness of "45," which uses the number in reference to middle age, the end of World War II, singles, and a gun, comes off as a little desperate. But there are some forward leaps too: Costello's been citing underground hip-hoppers Cannibal Ox as an influence, and his use of lean rhythmic loops (not to mention his return to austerity) hints that they're a positive one.