Many loyal fans wondered whether Elvis Costello was going to produce another album after announcing his retirement in 1996, at the end of his tour with The Attractions.
After the release of Useless Beauty, which his fans deemed as useless, Costello was fed up with the music business. Although he claimed he was going to take a long holiday, he never did. Two months later he was touring with John Harle, won a Grammy for his collaboration with Burt Bacharach on Painted from Memory and twice toured the world with Steve Nieve. After two decades of non-stop releases, Costello took a break from his music, but that didn't stop him from delving into other genres of music. Costello, now 47, releases his first rock 'n' roll album in almost seven years titled When I Was Cruel.
Costello self produced his 17th studio album under the alias "The Imposter," under his new label Island/Defjam. The title, When I Was Cruel, alludes to his former status of a punk, Brit-pop icon who has returned to claim his fame once more. The buzz in the music business is that Mr. Costello has returned to his roots and produced a rock album that truly represents his "real" music. My question is, what is your definition of rock 'n' roll?
When I Was Cruel is supposed to represent a milestone in Costello's career, symbolizing his maturity and ability to combine his punk roots with his new sound. It may be an improvement, but that still doesn't make it worthy of all the praise it's being given. The lyrics are either packed with cheesy clichés or bogged down with vague poetry. And what can anyone say about Costello's voice? Either you like it or you don't.
"Spooky Girlfriend" sounds like a mix between elevator and lounge music. "When I was Cruel NO2" is mysterious in its mellow bass line and exotic trance sound and by far one of the best songs on the album. A one syllable clip from Mina, an Italian pop record, is dubbed and repeated throughout the track, providing an even spookier feel.
"Soul For Higher," originally written for a movie titled Prison Song, expresses the feelings of a public defender who has lost all faith in the justice system. "15 Pedals" incorporates Spanish Flamenco music with drums and guitar, producing a heavy rhythm. It chronicles the breakup of a couple that has been together for 15 years: "I love you more than you know." Yes, we know, and has anyone heard that before?
I don't want to trash the album completely because it has its good moments and if you are an Elvis Costello fan, buy it. I'm sure it will cheer you up after those years of disappointment. But on the flip side, should we praise musicians for producing albums better than their recent batting average? My vote is no.