Most stories about Elvis Costello in the past six years lamented the death of punk's angry young man and touted the arrival of Elvis the Mellow Old Crooner.
But in reality, the spit and snarl never vanished — he was just stockpiling it for When I Was Cruel, which arrived in record stores Tuesday.
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 — 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 my 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 such as "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," says Costello, who is scheduled to perform Saturday on CBS's Early Show. "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."
As pleased as he is with the new album, he's also eager to defend his work with Bacharach, including Painted By Memory (1998) and a cameo in the second Austin Powers movie in which the duo performed the soft-rock staple, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."
Some critics lambasted the Burt-and-Elvis Show, saying Costello's blunt voice simply isn't suited to delicate ballads. But the singer calls those assessments "ignorant."
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.
But while he has always been famous for his caustic wit, several tunes on When I Was Cruel find his acid tongue mellowing.