Harvard Crimson, May 3, 2002

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When I Was Cruel

Elvis Costello

Ian MacKenzie

Elvis Costello, lost for the last decade or more in a quagmire of overwrought pretensions and ill-suited collaborations has finally returned to form—and how. When I Was Cruel is the true successor to such Costello classics as This Year's Model and Armed Forces. "45," the first track, could have been an outtake from the latter. Candy-coated organs and big drums abound on this record alongside the trademark rhythmic tics for which Costello is so highly regarded. Never has neurosis been as danceable as on the back-alley jam "Spooky Girlfriend."

The set piece here is "Tart," the best thing Costello's written since 1978. It's constructed atop a beautiful piano line and a fuzzy, walking bassline. Costello has always loved a pun, and he has more fun than he's had in years: "Is it something you crave? / 'Cause you say that you only feel bitterness / Would it kill you to show us a little sweetness?" The song is most impressive for its dynamics: Costello dryly lights into the unnamed woman over the nudge of the bass and the soft support of the drums. Halfway into the song however, everything explodes — cymbals crash as Costello screams, "But the flavour is tart, and the flavour is tart."

Costello has lost none of his edge. It only makes one want to ask Costello, who called this return to form When I Was Cruel — "Elvis, you mean you're not anymore?"


Harvard Crimson, October 9, 1998

Ian MacKenzie reviews When I Was Cruel.


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