This always surprising work reaches into the netherworlds of such long-ago Costello compositions as "I Want You," "Pills and Soap" and "Green Shirt." More than that, it conjures up the displacement — the weird sense of privileged resentment — of the overlooked "My Dark Life," made in 1996 for the X Files tribute Songs in the Key of X (now included on the Rhino reissue of Costello's All This Useless Beauty, from the same year). And with Steve Nieve, keyboards, and Pete Thomas, drums, When I Was Cruel is a redrawn breath of Costello's 1978 voice, the thuggishness thickened in the throat like a certain thickening of the body. The tunes are rough, hard, inventive, moving too fast: "Like a Jewish figure revolving on a music box." Really? Did I just hear that coming out of the song, or did I write it in myself?
The heart of the album — across years of experiments, Costello's best since All This Useless Beauty, if not far better — may be "When I Was Cruel No. 2" ("When you were cruel?" cry the fans. "When weren't you?") The slow performance has the languid feel of post-La Dolce Vita movies, everybody passed out in their Pucci outfits and only the singer walking through the gilded room, deciding what to take. The music is built around a tiny sample "from a '60s italian pop record by the great singer, Mina," repeated every six seconds: "Oh, no," she seems to be saying. It's an indelible bit of rhythmic punctuation, and like Eminem's use of Dido's "Thank You" in his "Stan" but infinitely more subtle, a commentary on the story the singer is telling, insisting on doubt, melodrama and bad news.