One of the naughtier things Elvis Costello devised for his last album was calling the centerpiece "When I Was Cruel, Pt. 2" and relegating "Pt. 1" to a Japanese-only B-side. Karma's caught up with him, though, seizing him with a prolonged fit of generosity which has culminated in Cruel Smile: a full-length companion to When I Was Cruel, offering a hodgepodge of sketches, elaboration, proposed improvements, belated amends — and not least of all, the infamous "Pt. 1." As a prequel, the song isn't exactly The Matrix Reloaded, but gripping nonetheless: "Pt. 1" fleshes out the portrait of the same mysterious gold-digger ("Why did you travel far abroad / So you could sleep with strangers?") whom we last saw elevated to high society, and causing memorable hisses ("She was selling speedboats at a trade show when he met her"). All the while, Costello rues his own brutal youth, when he could muster more pungent insults at the drop of a top hat.
This stunt aside, the meat of Cruel Smile comes with its remixes, which are plentiful and, refreshingly, created without the aid of cred-bearing "name" guests. For us rockists who cheered Costello's regression, the biggest and most pleasant surprise of When I Was Cruel must have been its sophisticated drum work, some of which bore comparison with Dave Fridmann's Yoshimi stratagems: idiosyncratic mix of live skins and sampled textures, with cut-up digital fills no human could possibly replicate. If you're with me on that, you may actually prefer Cruel Smile over the album proper, since it completely forgoes When I Was Cruel's few Bacharachian moments ("Tart," "My Little Blue Window") for its glorious ugly side.
The new version of "15 Petals" is loose and fast, its original Latin beat fuzzed up and defaced with blasts of horn skronk that wouldn't be out of place on a Frank London project. "Spooky Girlfriend," recorded live at KFOG, has about four drum machines going at the same time (one in reverse), and adds cavernous reverb to Costello's cracked vocal. This "Spooky Girlfriend" is noticeably sexier; Costello has suggested Destiny's Child should cover it, adding, "I could see why they wouldn't want to, though." Given that old racial-slur incident (from his cruel days) which I'm in no mood to reiterate, this may have been a bit of a risky quip for Elvis, but this version makes me think he might have meant it in earnest.
Elsewhere on the remix front, "Honeyhouse" is a loungy incarnation of "When I Was Cruel, Pt. 2," sorely missing the hypnotic looped yelp that drives the original. "Revolution Doll," naturally, is a gutted "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)." "Peroxide Side," in turn, remakes "Episode of Blonde," mercifully preserving one of the best lyrical insults of Costello's career: "She had the attention span of warm cellophane."
And then, there are the bonuses. There's a new studio cut ("Oh Well," conveniently describing my reaction to it), and a live rendition of "Uncomplicated" from Blood & Chocolate. Live chestnuts from the tour, which mark the closest Cruel Smile comes to padding, include "Almost Blue" and "Watching the Detectives" — and that, you must admit, is pretty good padding. Two versions of Charles Chaplin's "Smile" serve as superfluous bookends. Shit, there's even a hidden track that I discovered minutes ago during the obligatory while-reviewing spin! The highest achievement for any comp is standalone status, a shelf-life unshackled from the source. It won't happen to Cruel Smile, but as footnotes go, this one would make David Foster Wallace proud.