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.