Elvis Costello is such an asshole. Every record he makes is a genre exercise, and an implication that he’s more culturally enlightened than his mortal admirers. When I Was Cruel is an exercise in the “old Elvis Costello and the Attractions” genre, which he’s framing as a pip pip, cheerio, thought I might nip down to the old distorted electric guitar and compose another rock and roll-the-r’s song cycle since I’ve got a few weeks off between my cool-jazz performances and the premiere of my new orchestral work sort of thing. Vehemence and acidity still come naturally to him, and the record’s intermittently thrilling; at his recent Bowery Ballroom gig, he pretended 1987-2001 hadn’t happened, and got away with it. But he doesn’t have to act like he’s doing the world a favor by making the Costello-qua-Costello album he’s been deferring for God knows how long. Rock is not a reward for choking down music that’s good for you.
Part of the problem is that he thinks he’s a great lyricist for the wrong reasons. Like Samuel Johnson said in the “Preface to Imperial Bedroom,” a pun “is to Elvis, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire.” He exhausts every possible meaning from his words—just because you call a song “45” doesn’t mean you have to invoke the speed of a vinyl single, the end of WWII, the caliber of a gun, and the age of a midlife crisis. His real strength is that he’s the all-time master hyperarticulator of the bitter sneer, which is useful for someone who’s working toward becoming a crotchety old guy. For sheer blistering bile, Cruel‘s only better in the Costello catalog is Blood & Chocolate (newly reissued! now twice as long and just as harsh!). He lets his P’s pop, spittily. You wouldn’t want to be the character with “the attention span of warm cellophane” or the one who’s “paying off your stalker—it’s a legitimate expense,” but the revenge-and-guilt thing always looks hot on him.
Costello’s nasal melisma has ossified into a set of tics, which he treats like a selling point; if his voice were any higher in the mix, this would be an a cappella record. Fortunately, his effortless command of melody and phrasing and his knack for guitar as punctuation haven’t yet betrayed him. (Neither have the two-thirds of the Attractions who show up here and are touring with him: Pete Thomas’s snare slam and Steve Nieve’s soul-carnival organ are Elvis’s own personal blessings, in part because they’re willing to jostle for attention.) When he isn’t making doubly sure you’re listening to the words, he lets loose the glory: a knife-jerking flash of falsetto, the sicko chord that powers “Dissolve,” the horn section that hectors him through “15 Petals,” the delirious tune that hog-ties “Tear Off Your Own Head” and drags it through the streets to a party.
You can’t write him off—otherwise he wouldn’t be so annoying—but Elvis makes you suffer for the good stuff with leaden conceits, overwrought hysterics, a useless reprise. And then he makes it all up to yoo-oo-oou. “When I Was Cruel No. 2” (No. 1, of course, is on a U.K.-import red-vinyl seven-inch single B-side) is magnificent, a seven-minute caress that leaves a blood trail. A loop of ’60s Italian pop snaps shut just as its singer opens her mouth; Nieve swipes a piano countermelody from Erik Satie; Elvis almost doesn’t oversing, and plays guitar like he’s pulling marrow from bones. It’s not an exercise in any extant genre, including vintage Costello—it’s the work of somebody who really did learn a lot from being out in the wilderness making records with opera singers and Burt Bacharach and Tricky. But when he puts his cruelty in the past tense, he’s lying.