This spring Elvis Costello will record his first symphonic score, Il Sogno, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. It's the sort of peregrination that has preoccupied the onetime king of incisive pop-rock for the past decade or so.
No disrespect to Costello. An artist this gifted has every right to dabble wherever he sees fit. But much of his recent work has sounded more like casting about than mastery. The Bacharach collaboration? Overrated. The chamber-music Juliet Letters? Too precious. For the Stars, with mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie Von Otter? Already forgotten.
Refreshingly, When I Was Cruel puts a big boot in the back of all that. A purported return to rock 'n' roll form, the album is actually a taut exercise in experiment a la Costello's mid-to-late '80s records, including the recently reissued Spike and Blood and Chocolate. In particular it's his wonderful voice — mixed way up front, raspy and deliciously vindictive on songs such as the title track — that recalls the period.
The record, as Costello has said, is "rowdier" than anything he's done in years. Besides the classic mercilessness of his lyrics, he stirs up some thrilling clangor on guitar.