Fear not, those who worshiped Elvis Costello back when he was the cruelest, most vituperative wit writing songs: There are plenty of derisive asides and lacerations on his first set of new "rock" material in seven years, the too-long but more than occasionally brilliant When I Was Cruel.
What's more, he's singing that stuff as if he means it. In the middle of the creepy crawl "Alibi," as he's skewering the culture of victimhood, he snarls at an entitled ex, "You deserve it, 'cause you're special," then follows that with "Maybe Jesus wants you for His sunbeam."
In his time away from rock, Costello has concentrated on ballads and jazz, and that experience makes Cruel his most satisfying, genuinely emotional vocal performance in ages. He has grown much freer with his phrasing at times on "Alibi" and the churning, Mingus-influenced "15 Pedals," he sounds like Steve Winwood circa Blind Faith, tearing out for the heavens.
He drips contempt throughout the slow processional title track, and though he's stingy with the blistering guitar rockers ("Daddy Can I Turn This?" is the most engaging), it's for a reason. Rather than slog through the conventional rhythms, he overhauls the lilting jazz waltz, writes careening horn parts for the Mingus blues roar, and camps up a seduction-scene tango, infecting those more refined settings with enough of his trademark attitude to make one think this nostalgic album title is a red herring. When he's on his game, Costello is always a little bit cruel.