On When I Was Cruel, Elvis Costello is himself again — though, at this point in time, you have a right to ask who that might be. Is it the man who writes music for string quartets and jazz ensembles? The experimentalist who works with sopranos and old-school pop classicists such as Burt Bacharach? The ambitious musicologist who's scored films and even a U.K. TV production of Oliver Twist? Or is it, for anyone old enough to recall, the pugnacious rocker, the onetime nervous tic of his generation?
If you were hoping for the last, you're in luck. Bristling with an electric current that seemingly short-circuited years ago, When I Was Cruel is the best work Costello has produced since Blood & Chocolate back in the mid-'80s. In the years since, he's delved into other genres for understandable reasons: to stretch as a musician and, clearly, to avoid becoming an oldie. And who can blame him? Many of his punk-era peers have become little more than nostalgia items, as we were sadly reminded when some of them were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month. But in Costello's case, the string of experimental records he's made over the past decade was one long, imposing gauntlet: the pop albums knotty and ornate, the nonrock projects revealing the limitations of his vocal cords and his approach to art song. (The most successful of the bunch was, surprisingly, Painted From Memory, his lovely collaboration with Bacharach.) It was as if primal rock & roll had become an embarrassing phase he had outgrown.
Recorded with two thirds of his long-standing band, the Attractions (keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas), When I Was Cruel brings it all back home. The hearts of many fortysomething new wavers will burst through their faded Armed Forces tour T-shirts when they hear Costello and the band ripping into the twisted rhymes of "Daddy Can I Turn This?" and, with Nieve's organ churning away, "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)." No longer sounding like he's gargling, Costello bites off his words and hits falsetto notes less laboriously than he has in the past.
For the bulk of the album, though, Costello reaches something more important — a middle ground between his vintage and recent selves, between the bilious and the mannered. As always, the songs are both autobiographical narratives (the sweet "15 Petals," apparently about his marriage) and character studies (the angst-ridden lawyer in "Soul for Hire"). But the music has a crackling rock-noir immediacy, thanks to the sharp, bass-driven rhythm section and the baritone jabs of Costello's guitars. The music breathes better than it has in some time: Taut cuts such as "Tart," which employs the old bitter-beneath-the-sweet allegory, and "Alibi" ("You were weak / You couldn't help it / But you never had a pony"), are economical in language and feel. What's notable about "Dissolve" isn't merely the way he uses that word to describe the breakdown of emotional and social conditions, but the hip-swinging, blues-rooted groove he and the musicians employ on it. He's learned that less — a James Bond riff here, a dub bass there — can sometimes be much, much more.
Costello still loves to string together metaphors like they're wet clothes on a laundry line; by now, it's hopeless to think he'll ever abandon them. I, for one, gave up on trying to figure out what at least a third of these songs are about. At the same time, When I Was Cruel approaches the subject of the appallingly fast passage of time with a new directness. The most obvious is the ambitious "45," a number Costello uses in the song to signify many moments — the year World War II ended and his generation began being born, the kind of records he first bought, and middle age: "It creeps up on you without a warning — 45", he sings toward the end. But he also looks back, albeit obliquely, on his own wicked ways in the alluring dub tango of "When I Was Cruel No. 2" and the floral pop of "My Little Blue Window," which finds him wanting to be rescued and changed before it's too late: "But if I avert your gaze / And I should become a shrinking flower / Just punch me on the arm."
Not to worry — he's already done that himself. In a way, When I Was Cruel is a companion to U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind — a late-period return to form by an act that wandered off the path presumably for good. Granted, Costello's next project is his "first full orchestral score," meant to accompany an Italian dance troupe. But as he veers off again, in search of a legitimacy he needn't try to reinforce, at least we'll have this shockingly vital album to keep us company.