CD Review of When I Was Cruel by Elvis Costello

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When I Was Cruel
starstarstarstarno star Label: Island
Released: 2002
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When I Was Cruel is a record that just grows on you. On first listen, I was indifferent, but as I listened to it over and over, it really hooked me. Costello has earned the status as one of popular music's best songwriters, and this record is further proof. This is not My Aim Is True or Spike (true masterpieces), but this is one really good album.

Costello has been exploring his artistic boundaries over the last several years by releasing a collaboration with Burt Bacharach (1998's Painted From Memory), appearing with Opera superstar on 2001's For the Stars: Anne Sofie Von Otter Meets Elvis Costello, and releasing the five-disc collection of vocal performances accompanied by keyboard only on 1996's Costello and Nieve. This record is a straightforward Elvis-of-old album: his voice stings with desperation, the lyrics are clever and biting, and the production is perfectly sparse. The mix really complements the rhythm section that lays the blueprint for the mood of the album. It seems that Costello really pushes his singing on this album so that his voice is on the very edge of its range -- wonderfully strained as if it were pushed just a little more it would break but it doesn't -- and it sounds terrific. This style is the inverse of the wonderful crooning that appeared on 1996's All This Useless Beauty, in which Costello sang beautifully and comfortably through an assortment of much more mellow material.

When I Was Cruel is a much more consistent record than 1994's Brutal Youth, a reunion with the Attractions. The Angry (not so) Young (anymore) Man blasts through 15 tracks with the energy and attitude of a much younger sod. Highlights include the opening track "45," "Alibi" and "Tart." The only song that really doesn't work is the overly noisy "Dissolve," but other than that short misstep, this record rocks. Welcome back, Elvis -- you have not left the building.

~R. David Smola