"I had something peculiar / Maybe...now it's dead," sneers the Beloved Entertainer midway through "45," the autobiographical opening track of his 17th album proper.
And in fairness, while reports of the death of Elvis Costello's singular muse are greatly exaggerated, you'd have been forgiven — in view of his rather grown-up collaborators of late ( the opera singer, the quartet, the Jazz Passengers and most notably Burt Bacarach) — for imagining the muse in question might be slipping into comfortable, "mature", more eclectic but somehow more predictable, middle age.
Violent, zizzed up, livid, political, tender, unflinching, occasionally hilarious and above all more spikily tuneful than he's been in years if not ever, When I Was Cruel is not so much a spectacular crash-landing back into form as a brash leap forward, further adventures — not recidivist, not nostalgic ones — in hi-fi.
Ferociously propelled by Davy Farragher's dubby, jittery bass lines and ex-Attraction Pete Thomas' smack-in-the-jaw drumming, Cruel sprawls with take- no-prisoners brio through glitter-spangles dub ("My Spooky Girlfriend"), monolthic, locomotive blues-rock ("Dissolve"), stampeding Latinate percussion and squealing brass ( the toreador sex-dance of "15 Petals"), not to mention your common or garden vintage ramrod Costelloisms (er, everywhere).
Lyrically, as well, it seems the author of "Shipbuilding" and "Tramp The Dirt Down" is still a formidable one-man awkward squad, still kicking at pricks while the rest of us dissemble.
But if we're honest about it, Cruel's real appeal, for this listener at least, is that voice. Half glowering punk with a raging head-cold, all prodigious spitting and violent glottal stops; half the heartbroken male answer to the life-or-death sob of a Ronnie Spector or Dusty Springfield, here it's roughed up and lurid again after a near-decade of careful and studied — if heartfelt — declamation. To wit, he's singing his heart out.
So he's cruel: cruel to be kind, cruel but fair.