Monday, November 17, 2008

Elvis Costello 21: When I Was Cruel

Outside of a few songs written for soundtracks, Elvis’s biggest project at the close of the century was producing an album for opera singer Anna Sofie von Otter, which nobody but Costello fans bought. There were a few new Costello compositions on there, but they’re rendered by a renowned soprano instead of the snarl we’d grown to love.
Finally, after the better part of four years, news of a new album emerged, with the promise of something loud and a tour with two-thirds of the Attractions, now dubbed the Imposters. Yet somehow something was missing. Or was there simply not enough variety? The over-hyped When I Was Cruel features distracting drum machines, dissonant free jazz, a lot of ranting and precious little melody.
There are highlights to be found: the rocking autobiography “45”; “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)”, apparently written for a proposed TV show about a female pop group that solves crimes; the biting “Alibi”, which recalled Elvis at his angry best; and the impenetrable but snappy “My Little Blue Window”. Those, however, were balanced badly by such masterworks as “Spooky Girlfriend” (which would have been better left to No Doubt), the twin litanies of the title track and “Episode Of Blonde”, two similar yet different stabs at a song called “Dust” and other songs that prove it wasn’t enough for Elvis to be loud; he had to be good, too.
The album got varying reviews, from praises to pans, and the bonus of the Cruel Smile curio by year’s end didn’t help. A collection of contemporary B-sides—mostly odd remixes—and live tracks, it was nearly redeemed by the inclusion of the original When I Was Cruel title track that had been scratched in favor of the plodding rewrite, along with “Oh Well”, which had already been issued in some countries. (Also, Rhino had started their re-release program, with similar bonus discs added to the albums proper, so there was plenty of other Elvis in 2002 to enjoy if this didn’t float your boat.) But at least he was working again.

Elvis Costello When I Was Cruel (2002)—
Elvis Costello & The Imposters Cruel Smile (2002)—2

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