Back from a peculiar series of collaborations with legendary balladeer Burt Bacharach, the inimitable Elvis Costello returns to form with a collection of crafted songs that drip with his sarcastic wit. From the opening "45" to songs like "Tart," Costello is consciously paying tribute to the classic pop songwriting of the late sixties. The sound textures he coats songs like "Spooky Girlfriend" and "When I Was Cruel" echo this style even when the song structure deviates.
Costello is in rare lyrical form on When I Was Cruel, delivering perhaps his best lines in over a decade. This is only emphasized by the control and passion in his gravelly voice. "One of them calls to me, says 'I know you / You gave me this tattoo back in '82'" he sings on the creepy, Dylanesque title track. "When I Was Cruel" is like a grim play filled with all the decrepit characters that have populated Costello's songs in the past. Another standout track is the highly theatrical "Episode of Blonde," which sounds like some sort of choreographed cabaret number. Elvis's stinging, streaming vocal is befuddling and intriguing as he barks like a sideshow carny until the soaring hook brings a dollop of soul.
Another respect this Elvis pays to pop is in the repeated referencing of song lyrics. Scattered throughout When I Was Cruel are lines from such far-flung reaches as "House of the Rising Sun" and "Dancing Queen," among others. In other ways, he implies past styles like "Tear Off Your Own Head"'s Byrds-like groove, the smoky blues of "Dust 2..." and the sweet, blue-eyed soul of "Tart," one of the most emotional points on the disc. Costello is revisiting the sounds that influenced British rock in the time when he was growing up.
Overall the impact of When I Was Cruel is one of violent passion and thinly veiled disgust casting its aggression on your speakers. In its closing moment, the clever and beautiful "Radio Silence," the tone drops to reveal a level of acceptance and abandonment. Here it is represented by a radio announcer who takes himself hostage and opts out of the system, having realized that all the communication in the world won't change a thing.