In the pantheon of aging rock gods, few have matured as gracefully as Elvis Costello.
Even if his ambitious side trips with the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter didn't mesmerize as completely as his seminal original works, Costello always emerged with his credibility intact. That's more than can be said for recent mainstream releases of other stars in his demographic.
When I Was Cruel, which hits stores on Tuesday, is Costello's first solo album in seven years and an invigorating return to form. These 15 songs consistently frame engaging melodies and lyricism with taut guitars that recall My Aim Is True or This Year's Model.
Costello, who co-produced the album, writes in the liner notes that he composed the material on a vintage silvertone electric guitar plugged into a 15-watt amplifier.
The intimacy of the stripped-down approach is reflected in the pinched picking style on the opening "45," which melds the number into what Costello calls "autobiographical arithmetic." The inventive connotations range from World War II to vinyl singles and corporate revolutions. Beneath the lyrics, understated verses build into ebullient choruses with layers of organ and background vocals.
With its creepy minor chords and ethereal backing singers, "Spooky Girlfriend" is the unsettling tale of a weaselly show-business Svengali's relationship with his young female client.
That darkly moody scenario is followed by "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," which whimsically addresses what might happen if teen pop stars rebelled against oppression.
Against a psychedelic mix of loopy bass lines and fuzzed-out guitars, Costello details the carnage as plastic body parts fly: "You can pull and pinch him 'til he cries and squeals, you can twist his body `til his face is backwards — plastic features."
Elsewhere, Costello and his backing band, which includes Attractions alumni Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums, brush lightly against lo-fi, world music and even 1960s Italian pop in the title track.
All the styles are filtered through the defining prism of Costello's unmistakable vocal approach. Although his singing might not escalate to the brutal bluntness it once did, it utilizes subtle peaks and valleys to elicit tenderness, anger and cynicism.
He almost spits out the words in the soulful ballad "Alibi," bringing his emotions to a slow boil that bubbles out of control with the admission that "I love you just as much as I hate your guts."
In one way or another, Costello has been wrestling with such contradictions since "Alison," but When I Was Cruel shows that he's a long way from exhausting his imagination.