On the title track of his latest album, Elvis Costello spins a transfixing, seven-minute tale of a terrible wedding filled with terrible people, culminating in an encounter with a newspaper editor who tells the singer, "Things haven't really changed that much / One of us is still getting paid too much."
It's a shining comic moment of self-awareness on Costello's part for all of his forays into country or soul — or his recent, often quite brilliant collaborations with string quartets, jazz orchestras and Burt Bacharach — there is a fan base who still can't grasp why he isn't with The Attractions and re-recording This Year's Model. (Of course, as Rhino Records' recent deluxe reissues demonstrate, when Costello did reunite with The Attractions — on 1986's Blood & Chocolate and 1994's Brutal Youth — the sound was light years removed from Model.)
As it happens, two of The Attractions (Cracker bassist Davey Farragher takes Bruce Thomas' place) are on hand for When I Was Cruel, a twisted, fascinating record that takes the listener around the world, both above and underground, from wild, raucous noise to balladry that walks the line between delicate and lethal. Steve Nieve's keyboards alternate between dancing and throbbing, Pete Thomas remains one of the best secret weapons in drumming, and the three-piece horn section sound like they're drifting through Jamaica one minute and honking away in a Turkish bazaar the next. At the center of it all is Costello, playing some of the loudest, most astringent guitar of his career. Indeed, the bone-crunching "Daddy Can I Turn This?" suggests that Costello's next collaboration might very well be with Motorhead.
Appropriately, Cruel begins with "45," an exhilarating tribute to the power of music and self-discovery. It's one of the most buoyant numbers of Costello's career, and anyone from the pre-CD era will appreciate "The words are a mystery, I've heard / Til you turn it down to 33 and 1/3."
Having celebrated the glory of music, Costello has no patience for those who undermine it: "Spooky Girlfriend" indicts a would-be pop Svengali and reminds us of the inherent creepiness of middle-aged men moulding teenage girls into pop stars. ("But when she does as she's told / We'll all turn platinum and gold...") In that context, the irresistibly catchy "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" comes across as an open invitation for the Britneys and Christinas of the world to throw down their headsets, step out of the dance lines and storm the pop palaces.
In fact, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility are recurring themes on Cruel. The reggae-tinged "Alibi" circles its pathetic prey as Costello spits venom in the direction of those who blame their failings on everyone but themselves, while "Dust" touches upon the thorny issue of how much truth, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, most of us can handle.
While loud, distorted guitar is the order of the day on Cruel, it's just as fascinating to hear Costello apply the lessons he learned from working with Burt Bacharach. The aforementioned title track concocts a scenario worthy of a Robert Altman film, but the rhythm is straight out of "The Look Of Love' and the melody would sound perfect in the mouth of Dionne Warwick or Dusty Springfield. "Tart" could pass for an early-"70s soul record until Costello's scabrous vocals explode midway through and "Soul For Hire"'s melody has a languid, jazzy quality, which is regrettably undermined by lyrical overload. (Costello is an ace wordsmith, but "Streams of ink and piles of paper / What are the breaks? / Jump out the window? Parole? Escape?" is an awful lot of verbiage for four bars of music.)
Cruel concludes with "Radio Silence," a mournful sequel of sorts to 1978's "Radio Radio." Over an ambient drone that's closer to Kid A-era Radiohead than any Attractions album, Costello mourns the talk radio culture as a perversion of free speech and a "sad waste of this wonderful invention" before acknowledging "I trust in tender ink and gentle airs."
That's something you'd never have heard from the Elvis of This Year's Model. Of course, that's when he was cruel. These days, he doesn't have to be; as the path from "45" to "Radio Silence" points out, the world's doing a fine enough job being cruel without any extra help.