Like so many of his punk-era peers, Elvis Costello could have retreated to his beloved "old sound," cashed in his catalog to Nike, and surrendered his relevance sometime during the Clinton administration. Instead, he spent the '90s making excursions into classical music, cabaret and jazz, reminding listeners that "pop" once meant something more adventurous and substantial than Pepsi jingles. If Costello's mid-'90s masterpiece All This Useless Beauty was distinguished by its relatively terse and refined craft, his new "loud" album When I Was Cruel (Island) sprawls in comparison. The first track, "45," is as ingenious a tune as Costello ever constructed: a metaphor that unfolds in dizzying autobiographical montage, from the end of World War II to the singer's own 45th birthday, with the 45 RPM single marking each milestone. A birth, a death, a divorce skitter by like a needle skipping across a record; the tune ends with the first of many utterings of the word "confess."
The record proceeds to even more torrid grooves, some laid out by Costello with drum loops and samples, others socked home by Attractions anchor Pete Thomas and yeoman bassist Davey Faragher. (Matchless keyboardist Steve Nieve, meanwhile, functions as a phantom orchestra of one.) After the taut arrangements of his Burt Bacharach collaboration, the emphasis on rhythm frees Costello to do his most relaxed singing in years — whether spitting one-liners with vaudevillian zest on the uproarious mambo "Episode of Blonde," or cataloging a party full of wing-damaged social butterflies on the title track, which weds a melody worthy of a John Barry Bond theme to a hip-swaying throb. Yet even this last song has a trace of affectionate resignation — as if the snarling twentysomething observer of "Less Than Zero" had learned to abandon his enemies to their fates, and to embrace his own.