Elvis Costello is one of those artists that people love. Not just listen to and like, not just appreciate and admire, but actually wholly love, with every inch of their being, till death do they part. What I mean by love is this: his listeners fiend after every bit of his output. They forgive him when he does wrong. They find his quirks, even the annoying ones, endearing. They follow him to the end of the earth, lust for him and endure, and can’t imagine their worlds without him.
In this way, Cruel Smile — a compilation of B-sides, mixes, and live recordings — is an album for lovers. Another example of his sheer prolific nature, keenly devoted Elvis II devotees will relish in another opportunity to rejoice in his creative whims, smirk at his indulgence, and debate the whimsies that separate the versions on this album versus their previous incarnations on other offerings. And as an artist, Costello only has one love — music — and, as he has been for a quarter century, he delves into it with flourish, leaving no stylistic stone unturned.
The record mostly covers material from When I Was Cruel, Costello’s solo release from spring of 2002, and his first since 1996. A highly polished, expertly produced album in its own right, When I Was Cruel was lauded as a return to Elvis’ younger, “angrier” days — perhaps a euphemism for saying he turned away from his older, Burt Bacharach-y days. Cruel Smile isn’t especially young or angry (arguably, neither was When I Was Cruel, unless those qualities are simply synonymous with “up-paced and on the rock side”) but it is quintessentially Costello: the musings of a quirky balladeer who’s learned from his battle scars.
Appropriately opening the album is troubadour standard “Smile”, a Japanese A-side. Backed by a lavish string ensemble that breaks into a jazzy pace with the addition of a saxophone soloist, “Smile” showcases Costello’s uncanny ability to make any song sound like it was writ by his own pen. Another version of the song — this time, the B-side to the Japanese A-side — later on the record. The second take is more languid, less orchestrated; Costello’s vocals are slower and heavier, backed by expressive piano that soars with other instruments mainly on the refrain.
In addition to covers and blended covers (for instance, a live song that combines “My Funny Valentine” with “Watching the Detectives”) are curious takes on When I Was Cruel material. “Revolution Doll”, a spin on When‘s “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” is cosmic anti-pop that, in my opinion, far outpaces the album version. Replete with looping echoes of the word “revolution,” eerie harmonies, and spiraling drums and guitar, the song is daring in its format and bountiful in its rewards. “The Imposter Vs. The Floodtide” makes a similar mark on “Dust” and “15 Petals”, two anchors of When I Was Cruel. They meet in a nebulous wash of feedback, a strong-armed rhythm laid overtop “Dust”‘s lyrics to evoke the frenzy of “15 Petals”.
For those who have never seen Costello in concert, live versions of “Spooky Girlfriend”, “15 Petals”, and “Almost Blue” are categorical examples of the magnitude his magic. “Almost Blue”, the Imperial Bedroom classic, sounds crisp and heartbreaking, somehow sparser than the recorded version yet infinitely more rich. The update is more electric — guitar, bass, piano – and also slower, allowing Costello’s croon to affectionately fondle the notes, despite the somberness of the lyrics. A harmonica is also part of the instrumentation, its moan seating the melancholy melody even deeper.
The glory of such a record is to capture those idiosyncrasies that render an artist human — and loveable. Cruel Smile is one of the kindest gifts the current incarnation of Elvis Costello could give his fans.