Elvis Costello
When I Was Cruel
2002
Island
15 tracks
62:53

Much has already been written by the mainstream press calling this album "a return to roots" or how this is Elvis’s "first loud album since 19??". The press (and his record label — after all, they’re all the same company) would have you expecting This Years Model 2002 and obviously this isn’t the case. That return (regression) might be interesting but it would ruin decades of Elvis growth. Let’s face it; Elvis Costello is the only artist of the 1978 punk rock/post punk generation to continue a valid music career. No one cares what John Lydon or Billy Bragg or Robert Smith put out this year, but Elvis, Elvis has been consistently brilliant (no matter what direction his music has taken us) for 25 years.

Hell, forget just "our generation" and count up the number of artists you can say that about. Then compare that list of defensible artists to the number of post-Exile On Main Street Rolling Stones albums. I’m sure the Stones soulless output can overshadow every artist who has remained valid through three decades. So why is the media so quick to sell the last twenty years short? Why have we told them this is what we want? Are we ready to give up the masterful arrangements that have developed over the years? The honed (but never dulled) sense of irony? The ability to transform mere words into delicate human emotion? Not me. I want it all. With When I Was Cruel, Elvis has given all of it to us.

Although it’s tempting to dissect each of the album’s fifteen songs to create some Spin-feature-sized dissertation, even that would not be able to communicate the album’s varied nuances and moods. Elvis does rock on this album and spit venom and there are guitars a plenty, but there are also tasteful doses of world beats, well placed samples, piano-defined ballads, and pure beautiful pop.

Just as with his entire career, Elvis has experimented with various rhythms and dabbled in genres he "wasn’t supposed to." On When I was Cruel Elvis continues that trend delivering Spooky Girlfriend, a song with an almost island beat thanks to a groove-laden Roland drum machine. The Latin rhythms of ...Dust are entirely organic with a guiro clipping and sliding your ears through the song.

When I was Cruel No. 2 is built around a slinky groove, tremolo-laden guitar, vibraphone and a deliciously obscure vocal sample that defines minimalism. Heavy on narrative appeal and clocking in at over seven minutes, this track oozes atmosphere making it an obvious choice for the disc’s title track (or even the basis for a delightful movie).

Two newspaper editors like playground sneaks

Running a book on which of them is going to last the week

One of them calls to me.

And he says, "I know you"

"You gave me this tattoo back in ’82"

"You were a spoilt child then with a record to plug"

"And I was a shaven headed seaside thug"

"Things haven’t really changed that much"

"One of us is still getting paid too much"

For those of you stuck on reliving your adolescence, satisfaction comes immediately. When I was Cruel opens with 45, a track that most resembles 1977’s Less Than Zero. Both Daddy Can I Turn This? and Tear Off Your Own Head continued the revved up rock trends promised by the album’s promoters although I believe the lazy sunshine pop of My Blue Window speaks more to Elvis’s past career.

In the near constant listenings of the album, one track seems to come back. A deliberate rock number dominated by an obvious bass line and accented by a Vox organ and delicious chorused guitar. Elvis’s voice is allowed shine showing off everything from his low registers to his very highest. It includes his yelps and quips as well as the delicate voice that has he has traded on for the last six or seven years. Again, weighing in at nearly seven minutes, Alibi shines as what Elvis Costello 2002 is all about.

If Elvis has recently alienated you with his forays with the Brodsky Quartet or with Burt Bacharach or German opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter then this will return Elvis to your graces. If Elvis alienated you back in 1980 with Get Happy or 1981 with Almost Blue, well then tracks on this album may give you hope, but he’s not going to win you back. For those of us who continue to be impressed with all that is Elvis Costello, this is a brilliant album that plays to Elvis’s strengths without rehashing a thing.