In 1998, around the time Painted From Memory — his team-up with Burt Bacharach — hit stores, Elvis Costello gave up on the idea of playing rock 'n' roll, or so he said. But he didn't really need to put it in words: Costello had already spent much of the 1990s taking sidesteps, sparring with his own discography, dancing with the horn-rimmed skeleton in his closet. There were soundtracks for TV and film (1994's G.B.H. and 1996's Jake's Progress, both with Richard Harvey); classical collabs (1993's The Juliet Letters, with the Brodsky Quartet, and 1997's Terror + Magnificence, with saxophonist John Harle); even an alternate vision and version of Painted From Memory (the avant, unguarded The Sweetest Punch, where Bill Frisell took the Costello-Bacharach compositions and found the guts among the strings and things). He recorded with the Jazz Passengers and the Fairfield Four, shared the stage with Tony Bennett and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Did pretty much everything except what was expected of him.
And so it continues with When I Was Cruel, sort of: "Nobody's expecting a rock record," he told me over the phone last March. "That might be a very good reason to make one, actually." Which turned out to be both threat and promise; his first record on his own since 1996's All This Useless Beauty, and his best since long before then, When I Was Cruel is literate and livid, vital and vivid, filled with blood and chocolate, bile and forced smiles. (Oh, and that business about giving up on rock 'n' roll? Strike that from his trial transcript for now.) Following Painted From Memory and last year's Swede-and-low outing with von Otter (For the Stars), the stripped-bare setup — he's backed by a pair of Attractions (drummer Pete Thomas and organ grinder Steve Nieve) and Cracker's Davey Faragher on bass — allows Costello to haunt the "Complicated Shadows" of All This Useless Beauty (check "Tart" and its late-inning meltdown) and return to the claustrophobic charisma of 1994's Brutal Youth and pop paranoia of 1991's Mighty Like a Rose. He's pent-up and pinned-down on much of When I Was Cruel, staccato stabs giving way to uncontrollable urges (dig the soft-loud slap of "45"), the edge coming back into his voice until he decides to step over it.
That said, and despite the presence of two-thirds of the Attractions and Faragher's best Bruce Thomas impersonation, it's not a retreat or even a return to form, mainly because there's nowhere to go back to. The mold broke on 1989's Spike, and if you're smart, you stopped expecting Costello to fetch the glue long ago. (Though, certainly, a case could be made that the Rhino reissues of his expansive back catalog — six double-disc sets are already in stores, with more on the way — have lured Costello back into the fray, goaded him into confronting his past and making it a bigger part of his future.) Rather, it is, as he said in a 1998 interview with the Dallas Observer, a chance to look at the old blueprint and see if he and his erstwhile bandmates "can get another sort of building out of it," as they did on Brutal Youth and All This Useless Beauty. And they do here as well: "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" — the supposed radio single, and good luck with all that — is the closest cousin of 1977-'86 EC & the Attractions, with its high-neck bass runs and tag-along organ hums, and even that breaks the family ties when Costello slips into a what-the-hell falsetto.
Instead, When I Was Cruel wallows in torn-up Tropicalia ("Episode of Blonde," which could be one of Tom Waits' old Rain Dogs), spare samples and ABBA allusions ("When I Was Cruel No. 2," a late-night plate of spaghetti western), leering horns and searing shouts ("15 Petals," hinting his girl-group fixation has moved on to Destiny's Child, or maybe that's just how I hear it), Elvis Costello Sings Soul fantasies ("Alibi," with its Stax/Volt strain and "'Cause I love you just as much as I hate your guts" down-on-my-knees-baby-please sentiment). It's a rock album at the edges, and rough and ready throughout; even the quiet(er) songs (say, "...Dust," for instance) clatter with noise. When I Was Cruel is at its best when Costello plugs in and acts out: "Daddy Can I Turn This?" simmers and shimmers like a lit fuse ("And still you treat me like a child," he spits out); "45" looks back at a life lived through a record collection ("Here is your song to sing / To do your measuring / What you lose, what you gain, what you win"); "Tear Off Your Own Head," originally written for Bangle Susanna Hoffs to sing as the theme for a WB sitcom (no, really), is, of all things, a girl-power anthem ("You could make somebody a pretty little wife / But don't let anybody tell you how to live your life") with power chords and piss-and-vinegar to spare. It's a record that proves he hasn't given up on rock 'n' roll, yet manages to take another sidestep as well, giving an on-ramp to everyone who exited his highway a decade or so ago while not taking his foot off the gas either. "Every Elvis has his army / Every rattlesnake its charm," he sings on "Episode of Blonde." Can't say it better than that.