For several years now Elvis Costello has been dodging the issue of his own earlier success. He has been at pains to play the part of crooner and classicist, he has collaborated with divas, composers, string quartets, overseen South Bank festivals, created an orchestral score for an Italian dance company and has just become artist in residence at UCLA. Oh, and done a guest spot on The Simpsons.
Admirable and understandable while this tireless eclecticism might be, the suspicion has been that it's all a cover for having nothing to say and a failing voice to sing it with. When I Was Cruel doesn't completely dispel that suspicion, but it's undoubtedly his best record in a long time, and probably the one his old-time fans have been waiting on. The title is a josh, suggesting that EC is all mellowed out and now fondly recalling his petulant punk days. The opener, "45," even hints as much. It's an autobiographical sketch with 45 referring to both the close of World War II, a teenage vinyl obsession ("bass and treble heal every hurt / there's a rebel in a nylon shirt"), and the birthday that "creeps up on you without a warning".
A few tracks in, however, and Elvis is spitting out venom and disgust. The title track is a particularly bilious account of a showbiz wedding, where he describes "Two newspaper editors like playground sneaks / Running a book on which of them is going to last the week" to a trip-hop backing. But while there's a vindictive streak at work on tracks such as "Episode of Blonde" (another celebrity snipe), Costello is not above questioning his own usefulness on tracks such as "Soul For Hire."
As impressive as his rediscovered lyrical nous, however, is Costello's more adventurous musical outlook here. This combines the familiar contours of the Attractions' punchy rock (Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas are both present), with arrangements that run from the Beatles-like "Tear Off Your Own Head" to the Middle-Eastern brass of "15 Petals" and the slinky, echo-laden guitar of "Dust."
At 16 tracks, the album is arguably over-extended, but after seven years since his last solo record proper, Costello has clearly been stacking up a few numbers. Or maybe he wrote them all in the taxi while circling the studio (he has done it before). Either way, it's good to have him back, cruel and all.