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Elvis Costello - When I Was Cruel Print E-mail
Tuesday, 23 April 2002

Elvis Costello
When I Was Cruel
format: CD
label: Island Records
release year: 2002
performance: 8
sound 8
reviewed by: Dan MacIntosh

ImageElvis Costello has been quoted as saying his Island Records debut is a rhythm record, and while this one is a lot more beat-heavy than were his recent experiments with classical forms or his Burt Bacharach collaboration, it’s certainly no exploration of the beats-per-minute universe. This is our beloved E.C., in all his unbridled fury and anger. Welcome back, you angry little man.

The song "When I Was Cruel No. 2" borrows elements from the Latin-tinged "Un Bacio E Troppo Poco" for a sort of ambient exercise, but it’s really the only place where extracurricular musical moments are obvious to the ear. The guitar, bass and drums of a few Attractions, and a few other musical friends, provide the lion’s share of his musical foundation here.

And it’s mostly a 4/4 time foundation as well, which is nothing at all in the realm of the exotically percussive. If this is a rhythm record, it’s primarily the rhythm of bash ‘n’ pop.

Costello’s trump card has always been his way with words, and Cruel is jam-packed with shining examples of his advanced lyrical vocabulary. The song "45" presents that number in all its many contexts, from the old 45 rpm, to its spot in the male aging process. He even refers to the handgun it is oftentimes associated with. In "Alibi," Elvis lays to waste any and all excuses so thoughtlessly offered by our responsibility-less modern society. And in perhaps the strangest twist of all, he sings about blood-sucking lawyers in "Soul For Hire," and actually comes off sounding like he has a little sympathy for these little devils.

If you’re a woman, you may feel a little slighted by Costello’s character studies here. "Spooky Girlfriend" describes one scary trippy chick, "When I was Cruel No. 2" is about a woman who modeled for boat shows before hooking up where her formerly cruel beau, and "Tart" is about an almost completely loveless woman. But then again, Costello was never one to create chick films on 45.

His old song "Chemistry Class" must be more than just a handy lyrical metaphor from the past, since Costello has a way of looking at life in its most elemental form. "Dissolve" speaks of how moments of living break down and disappear, and "Dust" is a grimy example of observational songwriting – seeing the world from the dust’s point of view.

As a vocalist, Costello appears to have finally found the right balance between what melodic senses his recent vocal training gave his vocal cords, and what he’d already been instinctually doing almost forever. His voice breaks when it needs to, but it glides along nicely when moved by the music’s gentler moments.

The arrangements of these songs lean closer to Tom Waits-like clanking than to the kind of purer pop Costello once made with Paul McCartney. It’s noisy, harsh and jarring in many places.

Elvis helped produce this album (along with Ciaran Cahill, Leo Pearson and Kieran Lynch) and the song title of "Tart" also helps to sum up its sound: it’s a little bitter in places, but for the most part, it just leaves a sour taste in the mouth because of the sorry state of modern man. He may not be as cruel as he once was, but he’s saying hello to a mighty cruel world here.

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