Back when Elvis Costello released his 1982 album Imperial Bedroom, his record label ran a one-word ad that cryptically read "Masterpiece?" In conjunction with Costello's latest release, When I Was Cruel, his label ran an ad that read, "First Loud Album Since 199?"
Costello and company have earned the right to be coy. Since the early '70s his career has careered from genre to genre, recently including even opera and jazz. But after each burst of admirable, if sometimes overreaching, ambition, Costello has returned home to roost in his rock 'n' roll roots. For the record, When I Was Cruel is Costello's first loud album since 1994, but it's also his first consistently great album since 1986.
Billy Bob Thornton's Private Radio, on the other hand, is only the actor's first record, period, but just because he paid some blue-collar dues before hitting it big doesn't earn him the right to mangle classics such as "Lost Highway," let alone open for one of the greatest songwriters of the past three decades. Backed by an ace six-piece band but facing a disinterested and largely invisible audience, Thornton didn't fool anyone.
Songs from his album, all co-written and produced by Marty Stuart, fell flat one after the other, weighed down by groan-inducing clichis and hampered by Thornton's weak voice. "Dark and Mad" and "Smoking in Bed" let his guitarists show off, but for every solo a song like "That Mountain" showed Thornton incapable of delivering even a sturdy hillbilly number with anything approaching conviction. In fact, Thornton set the bar so low that Costello couldn't have had an easier time blowing him off the stage.
Not that Costello took it easy. Playing before a sold-out Chicago Theatre Saturday night, he solidified his place in the songwriter pantheon by doing what few older artists short of Bob Dylan have managed to do: He made the crowd clamor as much, if not more, for the new material as he made them pine for his past catalog. Granted, the clever "45" and "Tear Off Your Own Head" hearkened back to his early days, but "Spooky Girlfriend" and "15 Petals" showcased a newfound love for strange arrangements and Eastern European melody. "Tart" and "Alibi" were bitter ballads bolstered by Costello's experience, and the adventurous epic "When I Was Cruel No. 2" tacked an incisive narrative onto a looped sample of an Italian pop song.
So good is Costello's fresh crop of material that he took pains to invigorate such old nuggets as "Watching the Detectives" and "Accidents Will Happen," attacking them like it was 1979. Costello also pulled out some great album tracks, like "Deep, Dark Truthful Mirror" from 1989's Spike and "Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?" from 1986's Blood & Chocolate. By concluding with a bone-chilling rendition of "I Want You" that silenced the audience, Costello also showed that the hardest hitting moments sometimes come paired with the quietest songs. In the hands of a master the juxtaposition was as sharp and jagged as broken glass, made more deadly delivered alongside Costello's latest cutting shards of class.