At this late date, what can any of us ask of this angry middle-aged man? Elvis Costello has spent the better part of a decade on academic sabbatical, indulging fanboy obsessions from chamber music (1993's The Juliet Letters) to Burt Bacharach (1998's Painted From Memory), slouching ever further from the fury of his brutal youth. But on When I Was Cruel, his 25th album, the professor gets his groove back.
Abetted by original Attractions Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve, 46-year-old Elvis sneers, snipes, and snaps like it's '77 (or at least '86) again, running on concentrated ire that seldom flags. The lyrics chew as much as they bite, and the music — ranging from twangy jazzisms ("Soul for Hire") to raucous blues rock ("15 Petals") — lets Costello honor his roots while still showing off what he picked up at the conservatory.
The more Elvis acts his age, the better — a touch of frost opens his senses. The power-pop opener "45" evokes, in order: the year World War II ended; the pleasures of vinyl ("Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat / Every breath that I held for you"); and the approach of middle age. It's a humane valedictory that looks back with generosity rather than anger. On the seven-minute title song — Portishead with the self-pity excised — he contemplates the value of turning the other cheek: "There are some things I can't report / The memory of his last retort / But it was so much easier / When I was cruel."
Sure, his aim isn't always true: Pat rants like "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" and "Spooky Girlfriend" stung more when he was writing them for trash diva Wendy James to sing. But for the most part, he's grown out, if not up, in interesting directions. He's older but not wiser, and who would want him any other way?