Last week tabloid newspapers reported that drum 'n' bass star Goldie was facing a police investigation, after allegedly assaulting a teenager who threw a peanut at his Ferarri. On one hand, the report merely stands alongside his wooden appearances in EastEnders as evidence that Goldie has abandoned his perch as the country's biggest drum 'n' bass producer and embarked on a mission to become the country's biggest nincompoop. On the other, it tells us something about the nature of British rock and pop stars in 2002. They no longer do anger properly. Nu-metal bands are frenzied with self-baiting angst, Radiohead mope about globalisation, So Solid Crew whine about "haters" on the garage scene, but anger is an emotion kept largely in check. It is unleashed only against paparazzi, the bouncers at the Met Bar and members of the public who throw pub snacks at your car.
It was not always thus. Twenty-five years ago, every new rock star in Britain was positively furious. It was as much a job requirement as ownership of a musical instrument. The Sex Pistols were so angry they swore on the telly. Joe Strummer's anger was so intense, it rendered him incomprehensible; the Clash's attempts to incite insurrection might have achieved greater success if it had been possible to understand even a word he was singing. Any prospective star not considered angry enough would be forced to endure a ruthless music-press inquisition, during which Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill would poke them with safety pins until they became very angry indeed.
But no one was quite as cross as Elvis Costello. Promoting his debut album, My Aim Is True, the former Declan MacManus was given to informing journalists that he kept a notebook containing the names of everyone who had ever annoyed him and upon whom he was planning to exact revenge. He was also given to showing them a large, bent steel nail, apparently his chosen weapon.
Costello, now 47, has mellowed with age. Today he is the "artist in residence" at UCLA, the author of a ballet score based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, and a songwriting collaborator with such august names as Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney. Nevertheless, his best albums — his second, This Year's Model, 1986's Blood & Chocolate, 1994's Brutal Youth — have always been those most filled with ire. That might have something to do with his voice, a powerful nasal sneer that could make "Happy Birthday to You" sound contemptuous and accusatory. It is perfect for articulating rage, but always sounds slightly forced when attempting jollity.
Happily, it is used to dramatic effect throughout Costello's first solo album for seven years. The title track offers a series of oblique images, all delivered with a seething force. "She was selling speedboats in a tradeshow when he met her" looks fairly innocuous written on the page, but Costello sings the line as if selling speedboats in a tradeshow is right up there with slave trading or arms dealing. It is difficult to work out precisely what has raised Costello's hackles, but the sheer strength of his bile powers the song along for over seven minutes, diverting attention from the rather hackneyed post-Portishead backing of Erik Satie samples and John Barry guitars.
"Alibi" is equally startling. As Blood & Chocolate's psychotic masterpiece "I Want You" proved, nobody does creeping menace quite like Costello. Although not as emotionally wringing, "Alibi" builds up a rare intensity as it crawls along, its vocals overamplified and distorted, its playing tightly controlled.
Much has been made of When I Was Cruel's experimental edge: according to Costello, its songs were written "with a Silvertone electric guitar, a 15-watt amplifier and a kid's beatbox with big orange buttons". Not all the experiments work — "Episode of Blonde," which features a pounding drum machine, distorted guitars, jazzy horns and a particularly bug-eyed Costello vocal, is messy and irritating — but they are frequently intriguing. "Oh Well" features lyrics co-written by A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip. But there is no sense of an artist nearing 50 struggling for contemporaneity; mercifully, Costello resists the temptation to don hip-hop's sportswear motley and start rapping. The song is a dark, subtle and seamless collaboration.
"Oh Well" underlines Costello's uniqueness: imagine the horrific results if one of Costello's fellow graduates from the angry class of '77 decided to team up with a rapper. These days, Paul Weller is president of rock music's Flat Earth Society, a force for noodling musical conservatism. Joe Strummer seems like a nice enough bloke, but hasn't made a decent record since 1982. Johnny Rotten, invariably got up like a pantomime dame, is an embarrassing self-parody, the current holder of that nincompoop trophy Goldie covets. Alone among his peers, Costello forges ahead, making albums as strong as When I Was Cruel, his snarl and his relevance intact.