Elvis Costello released his first record a quarter century ago. When I Was Cruel, his 17th album proper, proves time hasn’t mellowed the lyrically acerbic wit of this man behind the glasses.
In the past decade, Costello has explored amazingly eclectic collaborations, including work with an opera singer, a quartet and, perhaps most baffling, with the extraordinarily tanned Burt Bacharach. This latest album, his first solo work in seven years, is perhaps the most Costello-like offering since the mid-1980s with Blood & Chocolate and King of America.
Costello has made a calculated return to his rhythmic roots: Many of the tracks are rough around the edges just to remind us he’s really a rocker at heart. Costello crafted this album with thick bass sounds, distorted guitars, muffled drums and even made use of a primitive beatbox to produce unrefined hip hop sounds on several of the tracks. But while Costello is now expert at molding his product, it is very much conceived “within the box” and the result feels uncomfortably forced.
In an otherwise unremarkable musical assortment, When I Was Cruel has a few glimpses of Costello genius – although it requires the “skip” button on your CD player to find them. The title song is a Bacharach-esque ballad drenched in ’60s beatnik reflection with master use of the tremolo guitar. However, the opening track “45,” an acknowledgment of the musician’s advancing years, only serves to remind listeners that Costello has been bitter for a really long time.
In “Alibi” he wails, “‘Cos I love you just as much as I hate your guts,” but such bitingly cynical lyrics sound hollow from a middle-aged Costello. Navel-gazing still remains the prerogative of youth.
[Erin James has also been bitter since 1977.]