Elvis Costello rocks.
The man is 25 years into his career and appears as prolific as ever. In recent years, he's collaborated with a classic songwriter and an opera singer, re-released much of his back catalog along with live tracks and rarities, and also, earlier this year, released an outstanding new album, When I Was Cruel.
In 25 years, we'll have to check and see if Eminem has done the same.
Now Costello is back with Cruel Smile, the companion to When I Was Cruel. It's almost as if he's apologizing for not releasing the album 20 years ago by giving his fans the live cuts and rarities right away. On this collection he includes four new studio tracks, six live tracks and four remixes of songs from When I Was Cruel. The only real problem is that the double disc sets of the old albums are sold at single-disc price, but since Cruel Smile is a separate CD it takes twice as much money to get all the music.
The album begins with one of two takes on the Charlie Chaplin classic "Smile." This displays Costello in his recent crooner style: not exactly what most Costello fans are looking for, but then again not totally unenjoyable. Of course, the second version that closes the album seems like overkill, especially since there is hardly any difference from the first version.
The highlight of the studio tracks is the excellent "When I Was Cruel (No. 1)." The song is rather slow, but still serves to provide Costello with a chance to display his vocal range and verbosity as Costello coos, "Don't pretend you're innocent. Do I look like a fool? I guess you've forgotten, when I was cruel."
The song is actually much better than "When I Was Cruel, No. 2" from When I Was Cruel.
"When I Was Cruel (No. 1)" does bring up a good point, though. When Costello is not using his acid tongue to lash out at the subjects of his songs, the quality of his work suffers.
Cruelty and cynicism are certainly among Costello's strengths, and he shows that nicely on two of his live performances — "Uncomplicated" from 1986's Blood & Chocolate and "Watching the Detectives" from his first album, 1977's My Aim Is True. "Watching the Detectives" contains an extra treat as Costello combines it in a medley with "My Finny Valentine," expertly welding his personas of angry young man and lounge singer.
The remixes included here are fairly unimpressive. Most of them are just slowed down with slightly different instrumentation than on the original album cut. None of them come near being as good as the originals.
As an independent album, Cruel Smile falters. If you don't own When I Was Cruel or if you don't like it, you probably won't like Cruel Smile. As a companion piece, though, Cruel Smile works very well. It offers a broader take on Costello's recent music as well as a different take on some older material. Honestly, how could you really say anything bad about an artist who wants to give his fans so much music?