When I Was Cruel
The Music Box's #9 album for 2002
First Appeared at The Music Box, June 2002, Volume 9, #6
Written by John Metzger
Is there anything that Elvis Costello canít do? After all, heís recorded in just about every genre imaginable. A brief summary: His phenomenal debut (My Aim Is True) brought punk to a wider audience, but he soon grew restless with the rock world. He shifted into pop-soul mode for 1980ís Get Happy and unveiled his country side on Almost Blue. He spent the next few years recording both with and without his backing band The Attractions, went on a songwriting spree with Paul McCartney, and turned up on Saturday Night Live looking an awful lot like John Lennon. By the time the í90s drew to a close, Costello had covered an even greater amount of musical ground having recorded, among other things, a classical suite of songs with the Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters), a selection of honky-tonk covers (Kojak Variety), and a masterful collection of pop tunes with Burt Bacharach (Painted from Memory). And more recently heís collaborated with the Mingus Big Band as well as opera star Anne Sofie von Otter. Itís a dizzying array, for sure, and though many of these projects tested his core audienceís resolve, each was done with Costelloís usual classy, tasteful style.
His latest endeavor When I Was Cruel finds Costello, once again, wandering back to the rock realm for what may be his finest album ó ever. Heís always hinted at his diverse interests long before the projects have come to light, but here he folds everything heís done back into his pop world to form an album that plays like a supreme, yet updated blend of Blood & Chocolate, Spike, Mighty Like a Rose, and Brutal Youth. The blazing punk fire is back, blaring through tracks like 45, Tear off Your Own Head (Itís a Doll Revolution), and Daddy Can I Turn This? as Costelloís guitar grinds and wails against a wall of thick, heavy bass and Pete Thomasí fierce, pounding percussion. The Mitchell Froom-style of production returns as well, clattering through songs like the creepy Soul for Hire and the frenetically jazzy 15 Petals ó both of which come together like some strange collusion between Costello, Tom Waits, and Los Lobos. As for beautiful ballads, jump to Tart ó a tune that shows shades of Costelloís work with Bacharach without feeling stuffy ó or the tensely macabre Alibi ó a twisted, grisly tale thatís all the more horrific for what it doesnít say than for what it does. And then, thereís the artsy darkness of the title track, a seductively mesmerizing selection, sung with a sneer and perfectly draped with an array of sonic accoutrements ó the hypnotic meshing of percussion with a womanís looped vocals, Steve Nieveís ominous keyboards, and Costelloís foreboding guitars.
Thereís no doubt that some will hear When I Was Cruel and continue to yearn for the early days of My Aim Is True, This Yearís Model, and Armed Forces. But thatís unfair to an artist who has grown considerably since then. With its complex merging of rhythms and melodies as well as its cleverly biting lyrical twists and turns, When I Was Cruel is clearly Costello at the top of his game. Itís a gem of an album ó one to be relished and cherished, one meant to be poured over religiously. For only then will it fully reveal its many faceted treasures.
Of Further Interest...
When I Was Cruel is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2002 The Music Box