Elvis Costello

Record Review

Phases and Stages

Elvis Costello

When I Was Cruel (Island) There was self-mythology in the beginning, and there'll be more at the end. In between is anyone's guess. On his first proper album in six years, Elvis Costello's guess is an educated one. But on "45," When I Was Cruel's first question, the 47-year-old is all brains and no brawn, combining what he calls in the liner notes "autobiographical arithmetic" with a stop-and-start beat that's unfortunately devoid of any beat whatsoever. And the arithmetic? Fuzzy math. "But the words are a mystery, I've heard, 'til you turn it down to 33 and a third," wails Costello during his overproduced three-minute memoir. After that, though, and aside from the whiny self-parody of "Alibi" ("'cause I love you just as much as I hate your guts"), everything comes through much clearer. "Spooky Girlfriend" drags the lake like 1977's "Watching the Detectives," and "15 Petals," sure to annoy some with its manic horn section and emo-inspired one-liners, is a poignant 15th anniversary gift to wife and former Pogue Cait O'Riordan, presumably. "I love you twisted, and I love you straight," Liverpool's second-best yells, the horns evoking the elephantine stampede of "Oliver's Army." As for the rest of When I Was Cruel, the Costello formula takes over: minimalist but experimental instrumentation, eternally durable vocals, and literate punk-wave bittersweetening. All three emerge on the sadistic "Episode of Blonde" and on "Tart," the album's pivotal dirge, which manages to bring Björk, Bob Dylan, Sam Phillips, Radiohead, the Temptations, and old-school U2 into the mix without seeming too eager. Forget ballets and Burt Bacharach, for now. The jolly snake -- heavier, slower, and wearing tinted shades instead of Buddy Holly bifocals -- is back in the grass.

****

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