Sydney Morning Herald, April 27, 2002

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When I Was Cruel

Elvis Costello

Bernard Zuel

As he's said before: what's so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Rhythm and riffs, the suggestion of seedy nights and a wilful refusal to go quietly. Those are the main weapons of the new Elvis Costello album. Loaded with guitars (primarily the raw-sounding electric Silvertone Costello credits for inspiration), driven by lust and loathing and rattling its charms like a troupe of gypsies, tramps and thieves, When I Was Cruel is not the album you may have been expecting. Certainly not if you came (or came back) to Costello with the Grammy-winning Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted From Memory. But it is the album you need, full of vim and bile and energy.

You immediately feel its pull. Unlike Costello's last solo album, the emotionally exposed All This Useless Beauty, the lyrics are more character-driven, engaging brain more than heart. For example, the wonderfully atmospheric "When I Was Cruel No. 2" — which, like "Watching the Detectives," may well take as its starting point the soundtrack to '60s British thriller The Ipcress File — overflows with drunk captains of industry, trophy wives and flunkeys and castrato walkers.

In "Episode of Blonde" and "Soul for Hire" the pimps come in Armani and so do the whores. The images are vivid, bloodily so at times.

Lyrically and musically, WIWC is anything but safe.

It resembles Costello's 1989 album Spike in its oddball choices in sound and rhythms: Italian pop samples, mini brass bands, drum loops and voices merging into organs co-exist with a full-throttle band sound that shines in the straight-ahead power pop of "Tear Off Your Own Head," the raucous "Dissolve" and the clattering and sleazy rocker, "15 Petals" (though less so in the too familiar "Daddy Can I Turn This?").

My favourite moments come in the small twists. In "Tart," a snarl introduced with a simple piano-motif breaks down into edgy synth strings. In "Alibi," the protagonist teeters at the edge of obsession and disorder until everything all but explodes with a bitter twist to the mouth, much as it does in its close cousin, "I Want You." The guitar break in "Dust 2..." cranks up the paranoia, a dark territory that's explored more thoroughly three songs later in Dust, with its threatening guitars, low rumbling drums and parping trumpets.

They don't come easily or immediately but the attractions of When I Was Cruel are still revealing themselves to me weeks since my first listening. That's a treat on its own, but not the only one by any means.

Like this? Try these:

  • Elvis Costello - Spike
  • Eels - Souljacker
  • Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones

Sydney Morning Herald, April 27, 2002

Bernard Zuel reviews When I Was Cruel.


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