With When I Was Cruel, Elvis Costello made a return to formlessness

With When I Was Cruel, Elvis Costello made a return to formlessness

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From both a musical and a professional standpoint, Elvis Costello played it perfectly on 2002’s When I Was Cruel. By opening with “45”—a taut garage-rock jam with a cool organ line and clever lyrical conceit—the veteran singer and songwriter was sure to get critics reaching for whatever keystroke triggers the phrase “return to form.”

Not that anyone who’d been paying attention should have thought such a thing necessary. In order to make a “return to form” album, one first needs a “form,” and that’s something Costello has never really had. He’s got a look (thick specs, suits, Fender Jazzmasters), and a set of distinct songwriting and performance characteristics (killer melodies, slicing wit, sniveling vocals), but a signature sound? By 1982, a mere half-decade into his career, the man born Declan Patrick MacManus had played wordy pub rocker, seething punk, nervy soul man, surprise country balladeer, and New Wave George Gershwin. One of his best songs was called “The Imposter.” This was no accident.

Costello’s creative restlessness continued through the ’80s and ’90s, when he teamed up with everyone from T Bone Burnett to the Brodsky Quartet, and was especially apparent in the period leading up to When I Was Cruel. Following 1996’s semi-rocking All This Useless Beauty, Elvis spent five years making soft-focus pop records with Burt Bacharach, serenading Austin Powers and his lady-friend in The Spy Who Shagged Me, and scratching his operatic itch with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter. He’d lost interest in the electric guitar, and that was bad news for many fans—particularly all the pop-punk kids discovering his music via endorsements from bands like Sugarcult and MxPx.

When I Was Cruel was supposed to make up for all those wussy wilderness years, and on promotional posters, Costello’s new bosses at Island Records promised his “first loud album since 19??” In interviews, Costello chafed against that description. “Painted From Memory is a loud album, if you turn up the stereo,” he told CNN, referring to his recent Bacharach collaboration. If Costello was truly annoyed by all the comparisons to This Year’s Model and Armed Forces—the ’78 and ’79 albums that fossilized his image as a jilted nerd who’d gut you with his words and hooks—he couldn’t have been all that surprised.

First off, with When I Was Cruel, Costello actually had made a guitar album—perhaps the most guitar-centric album of his career—and that was bound to get a certain segment of his audience pretty charged up. More importantly, it was a super-rhythmic record. Back when he played with the Attractions, the aptly named sidemen he worked with the bulk of his career, bass and drums tended to be up front. In that sense, the new album was something of a throwback.

Also, he called it When I Was Cruel, a title that was naturally going to get people thinking about his “angry young man” days. On some level, Costello was playing into the “back to basics” storyline, adding to the buzz brought on by the pop-punk boom and further aided by Rhino’s decision to begin reissuing all of his early material.

But here’s why When I Was Cruel was such a masterstroke: It sounds absolutely nothing like Costello’s classic records.

When Costello would dismiss Island’s advertising taglines or accuse journalists of writing lazy reviews, he wasn’t simply being difficult. For years, fans had been clamoring for a proper rock album, and while he’d finally given them one, he’d done so on his own schedule and very much on his own terms. Mixing loops and effects with old-fashioned live-band playing, When I Was Cruel is yet another outlier from a guy incapable of repeating himself. Yeah, he’s digging his guitar again, but rather than fall back on familiar patterns, Costello uses the architecture of rock ’n’ roll as a starting point for some of the weirdest songs he’s ever built. They’re also some of the best.

Although Costello composed many of the songs using an electric guitar, cheap children’s drum machines, and a vintage 15-watt Sears Roebuck amplifier he found at a thrift shop in New Jersey, he wasn’t looking for a barebones sound. As he told Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, he was inspired by the “mind-bending” soundscapes of hip-hop producers like Timbaland and El-P.

“Technology is more flexible now than ever before, the machines more plastic, and you can bend them to your will,” Costello told Kot. “They seem compatible with distorted guitars. There are not many true pure sounds on this record at all, and everything resonates and hums together, so you get a good rhythmic noise, which is all you need: Get the drive for the song, and tell a story or summon up a feeling that you want people to understand. That’s what rock ’n’ roll has always been about.”

Originally, When I Was Cruel wasn’t even going to be a full-band record. As he told the sound-production magazine Mix, he’d planned to lone-wolf it with beat-boxes and guitars and “only call anybody else when I run out of fingers myself.” But then, Bob Dylan asked him to open a show in Dublin, where Costello had booked sessions, and that led him to assemble a band that included two former Attractions: drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard ace Steve Naïve. With Cracker bassist Davey Faragher rounding out the lineup, Elvis suddenly had himself a new group, which he cheekily called the Imposters.

The Imposters may be two-thirds of the Attractions, but thanks to Costello and co-producers Ciarán Cahill and Kieran Lynch, the band seldom evokes anything from the singer’s eclectic past. Standouts “Spooky Girlfriend,” “Tart,” “Alibi,” and “Radio Silence” are sparse, bumpy little groovers. The sound is something like trip-hop—albeit it a clunky middle-aged version shot full of that jittery energy Costello can never seem to shake. On the hyperactive horn workout “15 Petals” and shoegazer-blues freakout “Dissolve” he doesn’t even try to hold himself back.

With Cruel’s lyrics, Costello puts even more distance between his fortysomething self and the guy he was in 1977. He’s been around and seen some things, and while he’s still angry, he’s more amused by the absurdity of it all. On “Spooky Girlfriend,” he plays a skeevy ponytailed record exec ogling a young Britney type; on “Soul For Hire,” he’s a crooked lawyer wishing for the will to be a better man. The rambling “Episode Of Blonde” introduces some sillier characters, like the abstract artist for whom “paying off his stalker” constitutes “a legitimate expense.”

Best of all is “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” a slinky lounge-dub gossip-fest about a despicable millionaire wedding his fourth trophy bride. As Costello told interviewers, it’s a song about growing up and realizing that people with power and prestige aren’t so special after all. Up close, they’ve got bad breath and toupees, and behind closed doors, they’ve got filthy secrets like the rest of us. Though the Costello of old would have railed against these clowns, he’s now content to stand in the back and make snarky comments. They’re to be pitied, not feared.

The one thing Costello can still believe in, of course, is music, and that may be why he starts the disc with “45,” one of only two punk-ish tunes he might have conceivably cut in the ’70s. (The excellent “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)” is the other.) The title refers to the year the Brits won World War II, a popular type of handgun, Costello’s age at the time of writing the song, and most importantly, those little round things he fell in love with as a kid and probably still collects today.

“There’s a stack of shellac and vinyl,” Costello sings, giddy like a teenager sitting on a rug, sifting through a pile of 7-inches. “Which is yours now and which is mine?” The longer you live, the more your records get mixed up with those belonging to friends and lovers, and that’s how you go from The Beatles to Ornette Coleman to Missy Elliott going “Hee-hee-hee-hee haw!” It’s also how you become an artist like Costello—a genius shape-shifter who can trick everyone into thinking he’s backpedaled when really he’s turned another corner.

“Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat / Every breath that I bless / I’d be lost, I confess,” he sings, ready as always to hear something new. “45.”


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