I own most of his back catalog (including the first seven albums), I understand and agree with his iconic status in musical history, I think the man's one of the smartest songwriters ever… but I'm afraid I have to fight the Almighty on this one.
It's been who-knows-how-long since his last "proper rock album," and When I Was Cruel is suppose to convince us that Elvis Costello is back in rare form. "He's back in touch with his angry youth!" proclaim the press. "It rocks out like This Year's Model!" says the record label. Y'know what I say? Y'all must be fucking deaf.
First of all, The Attractions aren't with him, so When I Was Cruel can't possibly be a full-return to the early days of Armed Forces and Get Happy!!. Costello created his best works when The Attractions provided a hailstorm for him to ride upon. But with only drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve on board, the ruckus is kept to a minimum. Hell, even Costello himself calls this line-up "The Imposters."
Secondly, anyone who's looking for balls-out power pop ala '77 is going to be disappointed. Cuz – as much as everyone wants you to believe that this is a "rock" album – When I Was Cruel is actually an excursion into Swing-style horns, jazzy anti-ballads, and noir film soundtracks. Only four tracks – count 'em – contain power-chorded guitars. This wouldn't be a bad thing, mind you, had the hype not built up all these false expectations. Cuz even if they're not "rock," the songs are trademark Costello quality, right? Oh, wait…
Somewhere along the line, Costello forgot that songs need more than one riff to be good. Examples? "Spooky Girlfriend," "Alibi," and the David-Lynch-movie-in-a-desert sounding "Dust 2…" all stray no further than their opening riffs. Hell, "When I Was Cruel No. 2" repeats the same refrain (and some woman going "umph") for over seven minutes! And don't even get me started on the obnoxious bass farts that make up "Soul for Hire." Two bars of that crap would've been enough; never mind an entire song of the same goddamn thing. What were you thinking, Elvis? All those years of waiting and you give us an album of b-sides?
Things pick up a bit toward the end of the album, but it's too little too late. "Daddy Can I Turn This?" pushes the guitars upfront; "My Little Window" takes the vocals for a wet Sunday drive and into a sweet chorus; "Episode of Blonde" explodes with Vegas Cool and slides unexpectedly into a smooth-as-silk chorus, "Radio Silence" taps into sublime trip hop rhythms… but by this point, there's no getting rid of the bad taste in your mouth.
Sure, he has put some of the edge back into his lyrics, but clever put-downs no longer impress when they're accompanied by 11 weak songs in a row. Here's to hoping that we get another collaboration album before the man decides to pen something new again. Damn shame.