Contending with hype is always the difficult purview of the music consumer. Should one buy into the prevailing word put out by the record label and publicity reps? When Elvis Costello's new one was released this April, the buzz being bantered about was that it was a solid return to the old days, a new rock 'n' roll album from the world's favorite formerly angry young man.
Elvis is older now; wry has replaced angry, but the guiding intelligence remains a driving force, a musical smirk from within. Leading what he considers a charmed existence, he continues to field opportunities to work with others in a wide realm of musical styles.
Costello has become the musical equivalent of the U.S.S. Enterprise, seemingly on his own special mission to explore every nook and cranny in the entire musical galaxy. He has ventured into jazz, country and classical forays, appearing with such disparate acts as George Jones, Paul Carrack, The Jazz Passengers, The Chieftains, The Charles Mingus Orchestra, Lucinda Williams, Tony Bennett, Bill Frisell and Paul McCartney.
Other collaborations captured in the studio include The Juliet Letters with The Brodsky Quartet, Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach and most recently Anne Sofie von Otter's For The Stars. While never embarrassing himself with this extreme bounty of stylistic variety, there was a genuine sense that perhaps he was spreading himself too thin. At one time it seemed everyone on the planet would get to sleep with Madonna — similarly, now the prevailing wisdom was that, with patience and time, you too would get to work with Elvis Costello.
Not counting collaborative efforts then, this would be Costello's first solo studio effort in nearly seven years (since 1996's All This Useless Beauty) and as such, the hype machine was out in force — sounding the clarion call so we would know this was a very special treat, a new "loud" album from the acerbic raspy-voiced one, a long-awaited return to form.
So is When I Was Cruel in point of fact a "return to form" as billed? If you're expecting the kind of loud rock that peppered his first releases way back in the late 1970s, then the answer is no. This is not, as someone had told me, songs in the style of Trust or even Brutal Youth, the last album that bore similar claims of a "return to form."
Here's the audio verite, folks: this year's model will never again be This Year's Model for a number of reasons, the biggest being Elvis Costello's reluctance to do the same thing twice. Costello admits that "After singing so many ballads in the last few years, it was time for a rowdy rhythm record" but goes on to explain, "We used a highly skilled team of musicians to ensure that we did not accidentally make a record that had been previously released."
This is tongue-in-cheek, but the underlying message is not: he has no desire to re-create the past, per se. Further, he is not the same man he once was. All this musical exploration and collaboration has made Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus a very different creative entity, a better singer for one, and time and experience has transformed his perspective as well (as it has for each and every one of us). Elvis as angry young man lives on as recorded digitally (and on the numerous re-releases that force us impassioned acolytes to buy the same records every three years or so), but he is someone else on When I Was Cruel.
The good news, however, is that this is a very good album. It features an ample 15 new compositions that often challenge and delight. Costello wrote the songs on an old Silvertone electric with a little 15-watt amplifier, using a simplistic "kid's beatbox with big orange buttons" to get him to new places rhythmically. The results feature a healthy helping of distorted tremolo guitar, and production values that are relatively muddy/noisy at times (production attributed to The Imposter — Costello with Ciaran Cahill, Leo Pearson and Kieran Lynch), not too far a stretch from the Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake productions of yore.
My personal concern going in for a first listen was the absence of longtime Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas. While old friends Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve were on-hand to accompany on drums and keyboards, respectively, Davey Faragher was the new backbeat in town. Even a cursory listen showed me such fears were unfounded. While Faragher (Jann Arden, Cracker, Boxing Gandhis and more) has his roots in R&B, he is more than adept at filling his predecessor's shoes. Some of his work here is (dare I say it) the best bass EC has ever had.
"45" opens the proceedings promisingly, a simple arrangement that could be an older brother to some of the songs on Get Happy, the stuttering crunch of guitar leading drums and lyrics rife with triple entendre. "45" becomes a year for victory at the end of war, a type of shellac and vinyl record, and also an age of reflection (he was 45 when he wrote this). It's an homage to the magic of music, and even gives a nod to how we had to try and figure out just what he was singing on records past (don't worry folks, lyrics are included here): "Bass and treble heal every hurt / There's a rebel in a nylon shirt / But the words are a mystery, I've heard / 'Til you turn it down to 33 and 1/3."
"Spooky Girlfriend" was written with Destiny's Child in mind (not really such a stretch, though the connotations associated with the title might preclude the likelihood of such a cover). The muddy percussion is courtesy of the DR-202 mentioned earlier, and Faragher weighs in with some nice bass chords in this tale of a star-maker's depraved notions of what he wants from a girl. The older Costello is on top of his lyrical game here, as the big talker meets his match: "I want to paint you with glitter and with dirt / Picture you with innocence and hurt / The shutter closes / Exposes the shot / She says 'Are you looking up my skirt?' / When you say 'No' / She says 'Why not?'"
The single "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" is a far-catchier cousin of "Tokyo Storm Warning," bouncing along on a strong sliding bass line by Faragher and some fun organ work by Nieve. The chorus is the hook here, and the metaphor-ridden lyrics invite thought.
The sprawling epic "When I Was Cruel No. 2" is an Elvis Costello cut-and-paste concoction that covers seven minutes. He plays with sounds here, lounge piano chords backing spaghetti western guitar a la Angelo Badalamenti, and a running sample from Italian singer Mina repeating hypnotically throughout. It's a story of a wedding (familiar territory for Costello, e.g., the song "Imperial Bedroom") full of comments and innuendo, but the master of wordplay is in fine form: "Not quite aside, they snide, 'She's number four' / 'There's number three just by the door' / Those in the know don't even flatter her, they go one better / 'She was selling speedboats in a tradeshow when he met her.'"
Costello's lyrics show that the years have not dulled his love of words (even when citing an Abba reference). Check out this little description of said wedding attire: "In eau-de-nil and pale carnation creation / A satin sash and velvet elation."
"Soul For Hire" is a lawyer's acidic self-examination of his "whoring in the practice of the law," as Elvis again mixes in unusual scraping shovel percussion against a bluesy ballad sung in a vocal style similar to that employed on many of The Juliet Letters. This is a man torn by a job that runs counter to his nature: "Hang my head and shut my eyes / I can't see justice twisted / I can see every evil men do and desire / Got to be more than just a soul for hire."
Costello tries his ambitious hand at a type of Middle-Eastern musical influence with his love song "15 Petals." A horn section (Ku-umba Frank Lacy, Curtis Fowlkes, Jay Rodriguez, Roy Nathanson) propels this quirky song ahead (along with Nieve's Hammond organ bits), though later in the song the trumpet outbreaks call to mind the Nelson Riddle arrangements in the old Batman television show. Maybe it's just me, but word balloons of "Biff," "Pow" and "Kerplunk" still pop into my head when I hear it.
"Tart" is one of the prettiest songs Elvis Costello has written. Hearing him pronounce the word asphalt as "ash-felt" alone more than justifies the purchase of this new CD. But if you require more than that, just listen to Faragher's masterful bass work or Nieve's exquisite grand piano work here. This song lets Costello use his vocals to mirror the seductive exploration of bitter cravings.
"Dust 2..." and "...Dust" are musical bookends separated, a contemplation of life (and death) itself springing from thoughts of mere dust. "Dissolve" is a noise-track exploring the multiple meanings of the title.
"Alibi" is the other long track here (just under seven minutes), allowing Costello a large canvas on which to paint his various alibis and platitudes (the inventory is impressive and many are amusing). Again, he captures the feelings so well: "But if I've done something wrong there's no 'ifs and buts' / 'Cos I love you just as much as I hate your guts."
"Daddy Can I Turn This?" is another upbeat number, this one looking at smothering relationships with a jaundiced eye, as EC takes out the Rickenbacker and Telecaster and sounds a little bit like his younger self.
"My Little Blue Window" is a lyrical invitation to excitement and musically hearkens back to an earlier time (somewhere in the realm of King of America or Blood & Chocolate) and even reminds one a bit of "Blue Chair."
"Episode of Blonde" is a torrent of lyrics captured in a pseudo-tango, telling tale enough for several short stories worth from a scandalmonger's point of view. "Radio Silence" closes the CD, a musical relative of "Night Rally" that tells how we're held hostage at the hands of talk radio, a sad waste of too much choice and resulting lack of distinctions.
Age has not dulled the rapier's edges; there is comfort in knowing Costello maintains his ability to be caustic and wry. Perhaps this album is more musical kin to Blood & Chocolate than any of the others, but even that can be a stretch.
Another criticism I have is the under-employment of Steve Nieve. I know this is about Elvis Costello, but my point is this: If you have such a fine musician at your disposal, why not employ his talents to your own advantage? Nieve has a very distinctive piano style, and aside from elements in the songs "Tart" and "Episode of Blonde," we really only get utilitarian organ/piano/pianet accompaniment — pleasant, but not truly distinctive as Nieve.
Think Jackson Browne rejecting David Lindley's distinctive slide guitar work (okay, perhaps that's not a very good example). I suppose the days when Nieve was allowed free reign to contribute to the overall sound (circa Imperial Bedroom) pre-date the emergence of Costello as more of an independent performer. But given that Costello's major talents are critically lauded and that his place as a singer/songwriter legend in musical history is secure, I think he gracefully can allow more of Nieve's contributions back into the mix without losing his own importance.
One can only listen with awe at the sheer breadth of musical range that his career thus far has covered. For Elvis Costello, it's all just part of the deal: move ahead from project to project. He's currently touring in support of When I Was Cruel, working on a motion picture project with Neil LaBute, will appear in an upcoming episode of The Simpsons and soon will debut his first full orchestral score.
Perhaps he should be a little less concerned with "difference for difference's sake." But with all he's done (and continues to do), it's good to know that Elvis Costello still can take his "little hands of concrete" and put out a nice guitar-based record. It's not the old "loud" Elvis for sure (beware the hype!), but the rhythmic and lyrical twists of this year's model still make for one very good CD that reveals more with each repeated listen.