If Elvis Costello's eternal fate is to exist fitfully between cultish semi-obscurity and respectable old-timer stardom, then it's a position of his own making. Lately, Costello's restlessness, his cursed inability to meet anyone's expectations but his own, has deposited him squarely into his own twilit segment of the rock 'n' roll firmament. This stubborn single-mindedness also has failed to endear him much to the mainstream rock press, a rather traditional bunch, who these days seem content to write him off (albeit tactfully) as an artist well past his creative peak.
Certainly this has been the prevalent attitude that has greeted much of Costello's work of the last decade or so. Even the most positive review of his recent effort, When I Was Cruel, a crowd-pleasing return to guitar-based rock, rarely comes without a backhanded "return to form" missive from pundits secretly hoping for a This Year's Model or Armed Forces retread.
True, Cruel, a straight-ahead rock album spilling over with thick tremolo guitar and pounding rhythms, does echo Costello's earlier work. Yet cumulatively, it amounts to more than a listless harkening back to his glory days. Indeed, Costello's complex looping arrangements on "15 Petals" and the title track have much more in common with his latter-day output than, say, "Accidents Will Happen." Even more telling, though, are the songs themselves. Where once Costello bent his caustic wordplay outward, verbally bare-knuckling all who stood in his way, now the approach is more profoundly reflective, and, dare say, mature. So while When I Was Cruel is, by any account, a fine release, the backhanded "return to form" compliment immediately reeks of lazy journalism.
Costello's long history of venturing off rock's beaten path has provoked hackles from trad-rock fans and critics ever since 1981's Almost Blue, a nervy collection of classic country covers. This, after all, was not how punk's angry, literate songwriter should behave. Further genre-dipping ensued. From the lush, psychedelic Imperial Bedroom to the new wave pop of Punch the Clock to the downright folksy King of America, Costello left nary a popular song idiom unexplored. But for most, the real problems began with 1989's Spike. His first recording after an extended (for him anyway) three-year layoff, Spike was rife with stylistic variety, production embellishments and more guest spots than the obligatory closing jam at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. Still, it was a powerful album, and as fine a distillation of Costello's songwriting ability as he'd displayed to date.
If Spike's achievement was tarnished somewhat by the dowdy follow-up Mighty Like a Rose, it was 1993's Juliet Letters that sealed Costello's '90s reputation as a musical dilettante. In retrospect, the ambitious, at times challenging, collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, is as effective a marriage of pop songcraft and classical music as one is likely to encounter. Still, appearing during the Summer o' Grunge and Flannel sealed its critical fate as a career anomaly best left to Costello fetishists.
From here, the story involves the usual tableau of the career rocker: labels woes, troublesome reunions and very little serious critical attention. It also involved more albums -- and good ones at that, particularly Costello's second attempt at reuniting the Attractions, the vastly undervalued All This Useless Beauty, and his inspired pairing with Burt Bacharach on 1998's Painted From Memory.
So once again, we find ourselves confronted by Elvis Costello, and thankfully he still refuses to go quietly into the pale light of rock geezerdom. And if this time he sounds like he's retrenched a bit into more familiar territory, that's simply because you haven't been paying attention. When I Was Cruel is successful not because it dumbly apes the past, but rather because it artfully coalesces Costello's work to this point into a single, relatively easy-to-digest rock album.
Unlike that of most of rock's hoary veterans, Costello's work continues to evolve. He remains one of music's true originals, and if one day he's not regarded with the same awe as Dylan or Neil Young, it's our fault, not his.