Melbourne Beat, May 8, 2002

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ELVIS COSTELLO

When I Was Cruel (Island/Mercury)

   Shane Moritz

The year punk rock ate London; Declan Macmanus was working 9 to 5 operating computers. With oversized black-frame glasses, silly gait and pasty skin, strangers had little trouble believing him when he said, "I operate computers".

At night, the 22 year-old worked feverishly on his pub rock. Intrigued by the punk explosion, he picked up the Clash's first album on vinyl. It didn't really work for him. "If this is it, I don't want any part of it", he was noted as saying. He elected to give it a few more listens. Then some more and a few more after that. He listened to it for 36 hours straight, then immediately wrote his paranoia masterpiece Watching The Detectives. He wrote six other edgy rockers that summer, then changed his name to Elvis. It was the summer of 1977.

Twenty-five years later, Elvis finds the old suits don't fit, but dammit if those oddly-tuned guitars don't unleash a squall of fury like they used to. When I Was Cruel returns the king to the 70s punk club with a vengeance, armed with a stack of barbed wire melodies, and a fierce determination to get the band back together. Joining Elvis are two of our favourite Attraction's, new wave keyboard icon Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas on drums. Bassist Bruce Thomas is mysteriously absent from the line-up, but this new guy, Dave, knows all about the grooves.

The band launches into the opener, 45, like obsessive teenage record collectors. "Bass and treble heal every hurt/ there's a rebel in a nylon shirt", sings Elvis over a Magnatone Typhoon electric guitar, while Pete supplies drums and handclaps. It's nice how Elvis informs us in the liner notes exactly what guitar he happens to be shredding in each song. On Dust, he asks "could I spit out the truth, or would you rather just swallow a lie?" Before you have time to answer his query, he screeches a Silvertone electric guitar and DR- 202 upon your head. And for noise lovers this feels divine. Ever the lyrical dandy, this time Costello aims his poisonous fountain pen at the toffee rich, punctuating the implied decadence with trumpets and horns straight off a Nino Rota film score. The phrases are frequently wonderful. To wit: "those in the know, don't even flatter her/ they go one better/ she was selling speedboats in a tradeshow when he met her".

After a strange journey of genre experiments, Elvis rediscovers what it was like to eat a microphone or feed his amp full of distortion. Barring a few odd, hysterical arrangements, this album would translate well in a punk club. Our man hasn't sounded this tenacious in 25 years.

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Beat, May 8, 2002


Shane Moritz reviews When I Was Cruel.


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