An eye-catching red sticker on the new Elvis Costello CD promises the "first LOUD album since 199?" It's a well-placed question mark, because Mr. Costello (Declan MacManus) has kept fans guessing about a return to his acid-tongued rock roots. He has spent the past decade challenging himself to create excellent music with partners as diverse as the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach and the Swedish Symphony Orchestra.
The sticker isn't just a clever marketing ploy. When I Was Cruel offers redemption to those who parted ways with Mr. Costello during his years of innovation and image remaking. In late April, that pent-up demand for rousing guitars and prickly lyrics propelled the album to the 20th spot on Billboard magazine's charts during its first week. Mr. Costello had never placed so high in his 25-year recording career.
He'll bring the 15-song triumph to Wolf Trap's Filene Center on Sunday. No one is expecting the "angry young man" of his early career, especially after the lavish productions of recent years. But When I Was Cruel elicits a cathartic rush of nostalgia on the first track, "45," an ode to music overall and in particular to the shiny black vinyl that first delivered Mr. Costello's songs to record players all over the world.
He and the Imposters get cranky on "Daddy Can I Turn This?" He practically spits out the consonants during such lines as "Is anybody acting your age? / You got a girl you keep in a cage / You give her presents after a while / A birthday cake containing a file."
When I Was Cruel succeeds on the strength of its many layers, from distorted guitar to lush vibraphone, careening horns to earthy organ. Mr. Costello's vivid poetry splashes color across every stanza. The deliberately paced "Tart" begins, "Hear silver trumpets will trill in Arabic streets of Seville / Oranges roll in the gutter / And you pick them up/And peel back the skin / To the red fruit within."
He uses words like a scalpel to eviscerate the trophy girlfriend and her shallow man in "Episode of Blonde": "A tornado dropped a funnel cloud with 20 tons of rain / Though she had the attention span of warm cellophane / Her lovers fell like skittle in a 10-pin bowling lane / But nothing could compare with that explosion of fame."
Yes, Mr. Costello is back, cruel as ever.