Elvis Costello – When I Was Cruel

Elvis Costello
When I Was Cruel

There has never been a rock star quite like Elvis Costello, arguably the best songwriting talent that punk rock produced. He has crossed over into country, soul, pop, and orchestral music, and collaborated with musicians as varied as Paul McCartney, George Jones, Burt Bacharach and the Mingus Big Band. With When I Was Cruel, his first non-collaborative effort since 1996’s Brutal Youth, Elvis has at last gotten back to his punk/pop roots.
It’s a rocker; his voice is in top form. The best track, “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” contains a beautiful tremello guitar reminiscent of a James Bond soundtrack. Elvis’ lyrics have always been angry, but now that anger is directed at socialites, the media, and anyone else who gets in the way. The track also incorporates samples – a first for Costello – a loop of Italian pop singer Mino. Like lots of great Elvis songs, it’s a long one, so you won’t be hearing it on the radio.
The sturdy rocker, “Tear Your Own Head Off (It’s a Doll Revolution),” is clearly meant to be a fun number, getting you to shake your head and tap your feet to the Elvis beat. It could have been an outtake from This Year’s Model, but it was in fact written for a television sitcom that Elvis had pitched to the networks that was never picked up. Some of his sharpest pop writing comes across on “Alibi” – with the bitter sarcasm of lyrics like “Cos I love you just as much as I hate your guts.” He blasts everybody who’s ready with an excuse in our “don’t blame me,” take no responsibility society.
Elvis has always been recognized for his songwriting, but he’s remained an underrated guitarist. In “Daddy Can I Turn This?” he delivers a classic Elvis Costello and the Attractions sound. In fact, this song could have been on My Aim is True or Oliver’s Army – familiar yet fresh.
The album closes with “Radio Silence,” the closest thing to a ballad on the disc. It’s about a gunman holding a hostage after taking over the airwaves of a radio station. His main problem seems to be that he has nothing to say. It could have been the prettiest song on the album but for the disturbing content. This type of juxtaposition – dark lyrical content laced with irony and beautiful melodies – is a formula that has worked well for Elvis over the years.
Yes, this is your father’s Elvis. But sometimes, father knows best.