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Elvis Costello - When I Was Cruel (Island)
Review by John Keith

For those of us who have never quite gotten over the one-two punch of Elvis Costello's career-defining records, This Year's Model and Armed Forces, the news of a new one does not exactly send us rushing to the record store. My usual reaction is more along the lines of, "Oh look. It's another Elvis Costello record."

Sure, many of the albums he has made over the last 15 years or so have had flashes of the old intensity, and there have been some impressive efforts. And yes, every artist has a right to try new directions. But after years of pretentious interviews and boring collaborations (I'm looking at you, Bacharach) and blatant grasps for highbrow respectability (I'm looking at you, London Symphony Orchestra), not to mention the unfunny Austin Powers II cameo, somewhere along the way I lost interest in the brilliant career of Declan McManus. And I don't care how often some fanboy tells me Album X is "his best since Imperial Bedroom".

So it was without much excitement that I popped in the '02 model, When I Was Cruel. The good news is, it doesn't entirely suck. The performances are usually raw and live-sounding, as on the ragged, guitar-based opener "45" (which actually sounds like it could be a Blood & Chocolate outtake). But for every catchy, British Invasion-style "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution) ", there's a boring "Spooky Girlfriend". The latter is one of those verbose numbers that makes me think Elvis should put some of that blabbering into prose rather than song (like fellow smart-guy Graham Parker has done in recent years).

Even the album's title seems to be a wink-wink to the old-school fans that have been waiting for Armed Forces II: The Sequel. On the title track, you find the album's most telling lyric: an exchange between Costello and a journalist, who tells our hero that, "back in '82…You were a spoiled child then with a record to plug…Things haven't really changed that much/But one of us is still getting paid too much." Is Elvis trying to show us he's learned some humility, or is he taking a swipe at the guy? Or is he just stealing the guy's joke?

I doubt it's a coincidence that When I Was Cruel has come out hot on the heels of Elvis' latest trio of reissues, This Year's Model, Blood & Chocolate, and Brutal Youth. (The first two are re-re-issues, having been released on Capital, then Ryko, and now Rhino). This Year's Model was Costello's second album, but it was his first with the incomparable Attractions; it remains his best. After a few years of aimlessness, Blood & Chocolate was seen as an attempted return to Model's raw edge. Years later, Elvis called up The Attractions again for Brutal Youth, which was seen as a second crack at the original sound, after even more wandering in the wilderness.

If Blood & Chocolate and Brutal Youth were attempts to return to the sound that made his reputation, then When I Was Cruel is yet another. (This is true despite Elvis' own declaration that he tried not to make "a record that had been previously released"). And although the CD is not credited to The Attractions, two thirds of them, Pete Thomas and Steve Naïve, are on board this time too.

This means that, if you're a big enough fanboy, you could ostensibly go out and spend your entire paycheck on the new This Year's Model, plus its three offspring, all at once, and you might not even have to walk past the "New Releases" rack. How convenient.

It's almost as if Costello is telling his fans, "Hey guys, thanks for sticking with me through Sophie Van Whatsername and all that. As a token of my gratitude, I've finally made another rock and roll record for you, and this time it's all about my mean glory days. Speaking of which, don't forget to buy This Year's Model again for the THIRD TIME, while you're at it." Record to plug, indeed.

I'm beginning to think that rock and roll history, in the long run, is not going to be very kind to Elvis Costello, despite his still nearly universal critical acclaim. Because when the dust settles on all that verbal flash, I dare you to find me a classic song in the whole bunch. With the possible exception of "Alison", Costello has never written the kind of timeless tune that will still be hummed years after its author is dead and forgotten. He's never written a "Hey Jude" or a "Be My Baby" or a "Your Cheating Heart" or a "My Funny Valentine" (or even a "What The World Needs Now Is Love", by his good buddy Burt). Despite all his obvious talent and intelligence, ten years from now no one will be whistling "Two Little Hitlers", and they won't be whistling anything from When I Was Cruel.

In short, it's another Elvis Costello album. Not another string quartet album, or Broadway show tune album, or polka album. No, When I Was Cruel is your standard meat-and-potatoes Costello casserole, a recipe that calls for a cup of melody, a teaspoon of cynicism, a tablespoon of vitriol, and a truckload of lyrics. I could go into more detail, but it's not necessary. If you're a Costello fanboy, you'll like it. If you're not, you won't.

Like I said. It's another Elvis Costello record.


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