PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel

Robert Jamieson

Elvis Costello

When I Was Cruel

Label: Island
US Release Date: 2002-04-23
UK Release Date: 2002-04-15

A sticker on the front of the CD of Elvis Costello's new album When I Was Cruel reads "Elvis Costello's first loud album in eight years". The word on this record in the months prior to its release was it would be his return to rock music. His last "loud" album Brutal Youth barely blipped on the radar in 1994, a year in which the music buying public was still interested in grunge and indie-rock, and not so much in aging singer-songwriters. In the meantime, Costello has worked with such diverse artists as Anne Sofie von Otter and the legendary Burt Bacharach (with whom he even made a cameo in the second Austin Powers film). He has also seen his past work re-released, repackaged and compiled, a reminder to many of what his influence has been in the music world, from his New Wave origins to the ballad crooner of late. Would he still have that certain fire of his earlier work?

"45" starts the album out on the right note, a plucked guitar and muted vocal giving way to rock bombast. Written on his 45th birthday, the song references both his age as well as those seven-inch pieces of vinyl that used to be so ubiquitous in our lives. Costello knows, as any music fan does, the ability of music to mark the times of your life, a kind of sense-memory of how a song can evoke a time or place. Many of the songs on the record are full-blown rockers, from "Daddy Can I Turn This?" to the lead off single "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)", but just as many contain other influences gained with working with other artists, but to varying affect. "15 Petals", with it's Latin feel and blaring horn lines works well with Elvis' omnipresent nasal voice, but the almost spoken word "Episode of Blonde" doesn't. Even with former Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas (who appear all over the record) setting down a solid backbeat, Costello comes off as a whining Bob Dylan-esque ranter, fitting too may words into too small a space. This and the droning "Alibi" seem out of place on an otherwise strong record.

The title track "When I Was Cruel No. 2" is the album's centerpiece. With its simple unchanging beat, baritone guitar and vibes, it could have been lifted straight out of Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks score. Costello covers a lot of territory lyrically, from gossip-mongers to newspaper editors, ending every verse with the same lament "But it was so much easier / When I was cruel". Over a 25-plus year career, Elvis Costello has lost a lot (but surely not all) of his self-righteous indignation, and now realizes that many of the things and people that he used to be angry with are not worth the effort. In fact, "Tart", a slow burner made up mostly of bass and drums, is Costello's own attempt at keeping the bile back. With lyrics like "And you say / That you only feel bitterness / When you know it's a lie, lie, lie . . ." he knows he needs keep a negative outlook in check. The outbursts of piano and vocals in the later choruses signal this is not always an easy task.

Anyone expecting When I Was Cruel to be This Year's Model may be disappointed, but Elvis Costello has worn so many hats over the years that it would have been a misstep for him to try to go back. He may not be the angry young man anymore, but he's also not the embittered middle-aged man some would like to characterize him as. The re-emergence of the singer-songwriter in recent years may have paved his way back to pop music, but Costello proves he can still mix it up with the best of them. He's not giving up the torch yet. Though far from perfect, When I Was Cruel fits in nicely with Costello's legacy, and hopefully pop music can hold his attention long enough to keep his fire burning.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.