Elvis Costello fans, please come see me. Not having listened to any of his previous albums, I feel more than a little guilty giving When I was Cruel (his first in seven years) such a mediocre rating — particularly since the rest of the music world is falling over itself to praise it, hailing it as a welcome return to form. Well, let's see — if wandering, thinly layered pieces with a penchant for showcasing the whinier side of Costello's voice, matched with line after line of nonsensical lyrics are what made him famous, then yes, boys and girls, Elvis is back and better than ever, This year's model is nothing less than an odd collection of underdeveloped tracks that almost pull together by the album's close.
The disc opens with "45," an innocuous little riff on record and life metaphors that kind of grows on you — particularly after you've heard the rest of the album. "Tear off Your Own Head," the first single for the album, is a catchy, driving rock song, and the only one of its kind here. "When I was Cruel no. 2" incorporates the sparse guitar and debonair beat of an unreleased Bond theme, and "15 Petals" showcases an interesting backbone of sax and trumpet.
Near the middle of the album, however, Elvis begins to founder — "Soul for Hire" seems too slow and underdeveloped, while "Dissolve" ends up dissolving itself in a distracting layer of feedback. "Tart," an exploration of life's sweet-and-sour motif, begins with a beautiful piano intro and develops the perfect mood and pace, only to nearly be undermined by Elvis's repeated, whiny incantations of the title word. "Alibi" suffers from this phenomenon even more — the track is nearly unlistenable solely because of the way Elvis wraps his voice around "alibi," giving the impression of an illicit fondling which later segues into full-scale rape with desperate screaming). "I love you just as much as I hate your guts," he sings here, and he might just as well be talking about the word "alibi."
Thankfully, Elvis rescues himself with the album's close. "My Little Blue Window" is easily one of the most melodic and beautifully tragic tracks on the whole disc. "Episode of Blonde" plays a mean tango and has some nice key changes, while "Radio Silence" provides the perfect ending: a thoughtful, wispy rumination that'll leave you with the emptiness of real radio silence by the time it's all over.
All in all, the album seems pretty uneven — a nebulous middle section sandwiched by good looks into musical greatness — which makes me even more ambivalent. I'm not bothered by the non sequiturs in the lyrics so much as the haphazard fusion of music and words found here. Costello's lyrics never seem perfectly suited to his melodies, the result of awkward word choice and a lack of pure vocal finesse. The last few tracks are breathtaking examples of what he's truly capable of, but in the end may not be enough to keep When I was Cruel from gathering dust on the shelf.