Soundchecks Music Reviews

When I Was Cruel

Mercury 586 829-2

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Elvis Costello

review by Tony Lee

This is Costello's first solidly composed rock 'n' roll album for a good few years (while he's been working on some collaborative arty projects with the likes of the Brodsky String Quartet, Burt Bacharach, and the London Symphony Orchestra) and if you enjoyed Spike (1989) or Brutal Youth (1994) then put this at the very top of your wants list because it�s probably his finest work since those distant days of the early 1980s, when Costello was the angry young man in Buddy Holly spectacles bringing a scathing - yet lyrical - intensity to the punk movement� an intensity that no amount of outrageous public behaviour by his so-called peers could match.

There's no sign of anger management courses in Costello's background and, as you might expect from his diverse musical interests, there's a satisfyingly eclectic range of styles and traditions here, from elegantly structured love ballads and Costello's patented heartfelt 'grumble' songs with subtly caustic lyrics, to heavy rock cuts with agreeably raucous guitars. Former members of the Attractions, keyboard wizard Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas are among the support musicians, and When I Was Cruel features 16 tracks, making this an excellent value for money album with total running time of 66 minutes.

The witty and semi-autobiographical 45, partly about the importance of recorded music in our lives, gets the whole package off to a good start, and Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution) is one of three superb pop triumphs here that all sound like vintage Costello. The unevenly melancholic When I Was Cruel No.2 features rhythmically repetitive vocal effects and quotes aptly from Abba's Dancing Queen. There's a fantastic horn section on 15 Petals that makes up for the smartly rhyming yet incomprehensibly vague meaning ("Mussolini highway/ There's a frankincense tree" uh-huh?) of the wordplay. Tart conjures up some appropriately sexual imagery about fruit, and benefits from a wonderful grand piano backed chorus.

Alternative versions of Dust 2 (the second of which ...Dust is jazzier) bracket the heated rage of Dissolve and, my favourite track here, Alibi, which catalogues poor excuses with impressively blistering cynicism ("You deserve it, 'cos you're special"), and belongs right up there with the classic Riot Act. Daddy Can I Turn This? is another foot stomping rocker that includes the wryly droll line: "Is anybody acting your age?" The quite extraordinary Episode Of Blonde is a pointed satire of reportage on tragedy and infidelity, with a tongue-in-cheek warning about fair-haired femme fatales (of course!), while closing track Radio Silence boasts highly atmospheric sequenced guitars, and alludes to the hijacking of airwaves by dubious commercialism.

What else can I say... with the possible exception of Peter Gabriel; I think Costello is easily the most phenomenally accomplished and formidably talented singer-songwriter alive today. Buy this, or you'll miss all the fun!

Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press