Ahhh, if I only had a Latin Grammy for every time some hot air-bloated rock pundit wrote that Bob Dylan's "still got it," that Bruce Springsteen's late-90s social posturing is any more convincing than his Reagan-era material, that the small army of background singers and synthesizers required to create Brian Wilson's Imagination really sound any fresher than, say, "Kokomo." For the last seven or eight years, Elvis Costello fans have had great reason for concern.
After a stellar showing with the reunited Attractions on 1994's Brutal Youth, Costello released a trio of disappointing releases. 1996's All This Useless Beauty barely used the Attractions, wandering in several different directions at once and recycling material originally written for other artists. 1998's Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted From Memory seemingly aged Costello an extra twenty years, with its preponderance of crooning ballads and arrangements that might as well have been recorded for a Dionne Warwick comeback. And last year's pairing with Anne Sofie von Otter, For the Stars, barely qualified as a Costello release at all, with a predilection for Costello's iffiest material ("Shamed into Love," anyone?) and a pair of Tom Waits' more forgettable castoffs.
When I Was Cruel, happily, finds Costello tuning his compass with two excellent reference points: his 1986 masterwork Blood & Chocolate and the eclectic showmanship of 1989's Spike. Once again, Costello drafts Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas into the fold, but with a breath of fresh air in the form of Cracker's Davey Faragher on bass. Costello harnesses some of his Useless Beauty period's greatest strengths — the wet percussion from Tricky's remix of "Little Atoms," for instance, and the tremolo guitar that dominated "Complicated Shadows" — to give his new compositions a contemporary edge while anchoring the music to the ragged, rough-edged guitar sound that's been the signature of Costello's best work.
The result is an immediately engrossing and challenging collection of moody, evocative songs — an entire album of "I Want You" and "Watching the Detectives" for those so inclined. The cinematic noir of "When I Was Cruel No. 2," with its point-of-view narration and looped female vocal, plays like the torch song from some as-yet unmade David Lynch film — Twin Peaks meets Portishead in a smoky Italian nightclub. The faux-Beat rhythms of "Dust" and outright scat on the jazz-damaged "Episode of Blonde" succeed both as prose and dramatic bits of music, easily upstaging Tom Waits' hit-and-miss homages to Kerouac and Ginsberg.
The balls-out rock textures of Blood & Chocolate are re-explored on "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," with its thick guitar hooks and powerful blasts of cleverly flanged bass, and "My Little Blue Window," a cheeky nod to Blood & Chocolate's "Blue Chair." The guitar-driven "Daddy Can I Turn This" and the meaty, dissonant "Dissolve" are Costello-by-the-numbers, tightly wound pop gems that seem to spring painlessly from Costello's loins when he's on a roll.
But it's the more experimental pieces on When I Was Cruel that are the most consistently rewarding. The percolating rhythms and locomotive bass on "Spooky Girlfriend," augmented by horns and tight background harmonies, almost sound like Costello backed by Oranges and Lemons-era XTC. Likewise with the complicated pastiche of programmed beats, organ and horns on "15 Petals," a confident and infectious detour into Latin rhythms (think Tito Puente, not Ricky Martin). The measured swells of backwards guitar and deep bass hits on closer "Radio Silence" send When I Was Cruel out on an optimistic note — for the future of music and for Costello's own relevance in the post-modern blipscape of Kid A and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Perhaps When I Was Cruel's sweetest punch is that, at 47, Costello sounds pretty much exactly as he did at 27. Unlike Dylan, Springsteen, Wilson, or Waits — or, god knows, Lou Reed — he hasn't had to compromise his music to fit his aging pipes. Costello's at his most entertaining when he cleverly sidesteps an issue rather than confronting it head on, as on the slight misfire of "45," which makes the trite connection between Costello's age and the number of revolutions per minute made by a hit record.
Faragher's hyperactive bass proves a savvy addition to Nieve's blasting organ and noodling piano, Thomas' busy rhythms, and Costello's spy-film guitar riffs. Some of Costello's most interesting work has been fatally injured by poor chemistry; When I Was Cruel is a self-confident return to form — sharp, solid and, though Costello should have nothing to prove — completely relevant.