Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel

Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel

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Elvis Costello

Album: When I Was Cruel
Label: Island
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Elvis Costello

Album: When I Was Cruel
Label: Island

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Eight years have passed between Brutal Youth, Elvis Costello's last album of all-new, non-collaborative pop songs, and the new When I Was Cruel, but Cruel still sounds like a sequel, slightly diminished returns and all. Again, after years of stylistic wandering, Costello has returned to the basic rock setup—and most of the band that made him famous—and found it welcoming. Which is why it seems all wrong that the disc's best song is the one that diverges the most from formula. "When I Was Cruel No. 2" sounds like the product of late nights reflecting on the past with Portishead playing in the background. Like one of Bob Dylan's epics given a Costello-esque spin, "Cruel" scans past an expansive cast of characters frozen in the landscape of the singer's psyche. The drama comes from Costello's refusal to indulge in the artful insults that so dominated his early albums, refraining from passing judgement while commenting, "It was so much easier / when I was cruel." Like an alcoholic pausing before refusing a drink, Costello assumes the burden of wisdom with a tinge of regret, and nothing else here quite matches that for psychological complexity. On Youth, Costello made the return to his roots sound as relevant to 1994 as it did to 1978. Here, his commitment to sounds both old and new seems tentative, no matter which direction he veers on his songs, none of which find the focus and balance of "Cruel." Still, When I Was Cruel features plenty of worthwhile material. The opening track, "45," runs through three permutations of the number (as a year, an age, and a recording format), and sounds as catchy and clever as one of the singles it celebrates. But too often, Costello strains to squeeze more musical and lyrical notions into his simple pop songs than they can hold, leaving listeners with a scattershot collection instead of a fleshed-out statement, and a merely good album instead of a great one.

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