Recently, a local radio station was giving listeners a chance to win a trip to New York to see a secret Elvis Costello concert. I don't know why — I've seen Elvis a million times — but I really wanted to win this trip. Maybe because it was in New York, or maybe it was just time for me to see Elvis Costello again. All I know is that I spent a few weeks driving around aimlessly, trying to hit the right time to call in and win.
I may not have gotten to New York, but I did get something out of the contest — a sort of retrospective happiness for Costello, who has only recently morphed into an artist whom radio stations treat with kindness. And it's been a long, long, long time coming. He is unique among rock songwriters of our era, the tail end of a chronological lineup that runs from Cole Porter through Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney. And he remains true to his punkity-rockity roots on his latest CD, When I Was Cruel (Universal).
Cruel is Costello's first solo record in seven years and his best in way over a decade. It is neither a concept album — like the symphonic Juliet Letters — nor a "project," like his collaboration with opera star Anne Sofie von Otter. Cruel is a real, cohesive CD about him or the fictive self that appears in his songs. So although the album skips around stylistically, it remains recognizably Costello-esque, i.e., full of intricate wordplay, metaphor and a certain amount of personal meanness. Here is Elvis' comment on his own history as a musical provocateur: "Two newspaper editors like playground sneaks / running a book on which of them is going to last the week / One of them calls to me, and he says, 'I know you / You gave me this tattoo back in '82' / You were a spoilt child then with a record to plug / and I was a shaven-headed seaside thug / Things haven't really changed that much / One of us is still getting paid too much."
Songs like "Spooky Girlfriend" and, especially, "Radio Silence" evoke earlier Costello work (like "Shabby Doll" and "Radio, Radio") but with a complete absence of nostalgia. They aren't mere updates, they're actual situations made relevant again by music that is shaded with modern sonics and Costello's poignant tenor vocals.
Of course, there are numerous songs about girls. "Tear Off Your Own Head" and "Episode of Blonde" are reminiscent of Costello narratives like "Lipstick Vogue" and "Party Girl" in that they center on individual women's lives, as observed from Costello's skewed perspective. It isn't everybody's perspective, but it's incredibly compelling. And the fact that enough people are compelled by it is a triumph, because a Costello record, although tuneful and catchy, takes some patience to listen to. It's an experience that feels closer to reading a book or watching a movie, only with more potential for watching or reading the narrative again. The fact that so many people are doing so is incredibly heartening. It's like finding out that people are turning off their television sets, or that museum attendance has gone up again.
When I Was Cruel actually debuted at No. 20 on the Billboard charts. That number must be Elvis' best effort yet. He sneaked ahead of Enrique Iglesias, so things must be getting better on the pop-music front. When I Was Cruel is not the type of record to spawn a hit single, but somehow the number of old fogies who want to hear Elvis spit has finally become greater than the number of teen girls who want to hear Enrique croon. It's almost incredible, the result of 25 years of hard work and integrity on Costello's part and — one can only hope — an increase in depth and intelligence in the record-buying public.
Although he hasn't been added to the Queen's Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace on June 4, he is nevertheless finally turning from a mere persona into a personage. Can a peerage be far behind? Surely "Sir Elvis" sounds no sillier than "Sir Elton."