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Elvis Costello - When I was Cruel

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Artist: Elvis Costello

Album: When I was Cruel

Label: Island

Review date: May. 21, 2002

Elvis Costello has no need to re-invent himself; he’s managed to move through many stylistic genres, from thinking man’s pub-rock, to Farfisa-ed new wave, to string quartet Art Song, to 70s-influenced middle-of the-road FM radio pop. He’s remained himself through all of it, and even his mis-steps have been worth listening to.

The release of When I Was Cruel has been met with a lot of notice in the music press. The general drift of the recent reporting on this album has been that it’s Costello’s return to rock, his edgy exploration of hip-hop, sampling, and presumably, all things cutting edge.

Well, yes and no: There are definite traces of This Year's Model mod, energetic, pop stylings here, along with some beat-box rhythms and textured loops that owe more to moody Portishead spy-noir than they do to, say, Dr. Dre...(But wait a minute. Spy Noir? Remember “Watching the Detectives” from My Aim Is True? )

What is most evident on When I Was Cruel is the way Costello has mastered pop-song form. He brings a Bacharach-McCartney-Brian Wilson sort of gift for melody and hook to these songs, along with a lyrical sense that filters Cockney Grand Guignol storylines through Dylan-esque wordplay. In a sense, that’s what he’s always done. But what’s new here is the absolute control of the songwriter’s craft that he’s achieved. Indeed, if there is any flaw in this album, it’s precisely that mastery: Control is not exactly something we tend to value in Rock With a Capital R.

Of course, this reviewer is old enough to know that an artist can’t be a clever, angry young man forever. Naturally, Elvis Costello knows this too. A listen to the album’s title song is proof of how gracefully Costello deals with the fact. With James Bond guitars, eerie, cinematic samples,and twisting, turning lyrics rife with kitsch-culture double entendre’s and puns, Costello spins a dreamlike, nocturnal tale; sort of like Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, shaken, not stirred. His cooly passionate, slightly cracked vocal style delivers a punch, as it does throughout most of the album.

When I Was Cruel is a great headphone album, with layering and texture that serve the songs well. And the songs will probably burrow into your brain, where you will hear them echoing at a later date. Best of all, Elvis Costello proves to us all that he has very little need to worry about a mid-life crisis.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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