In the seven years since Elvis Costello's last solo album, he's been around the world and back, played with Burt Bacharach and crooned on ballad after ballad.
But the kind and gentle Costello is gone on his latest effort, When I Was Cruel. It's been replaced by the heavy, rocking sounds of his biggest hits. And though the new album sounds like past smashes like 1978's This Year's Model, Costello went through a painstaking progress to make sure he wasn't doing what had already been done.
"45" opens the disc, and it's clear from the outset that you're hearing vintage Costello. The rockers are loaded with hard-pounding beats and fuzzed-out guitars, and Costello's voice sounds circa 1978. He's always been able to channel his emotions through his vocals, and this album is no exception.
The most impressive part of When I Was Cruel is Costello's backing band. Steve Nieve plays keyboards, Davey Faragher plays bass, and Pete Thomas plays the drums. I've never heard of any of them, but they rock harder than most established groups. Faragher uses much of the disc as his personal playground, scaling the full spectrum of his instrument.
A pair of horn players Frank Lacy and Roy Nathanson — go wild on "15 Petals" and "...Dust," making the entire album a well-rounded collection.
Like many Costello albums, When I Was Cruel has a few songs best described as out-of-place. They feel like they don't belong or flow with the rest of them. Of the 15 tracks, several feature electronic assistance that sounds awkward at first but makes sense later.
Elvis Costello isn't an artist you just get into, like you would with a normal singer. It takes some digging and repeated listens to figure out what he's trying to accomplish. For every two or three songs you like, there's at least one you won't like.
When you do figure it out, however, it's clear he's a cult hero for a reason the guy rocks.