For just about every older rocker out there, an album title like When I Was Cruel would seem like a regressive attempt at reclaiming a rebellious past. But for Elvis Costello, it's just a great inside joke: Aside from collaborations with decidedly adult artists like Anne Sofie von Otter and Burt Bacharach, a handful of albums in the late nineties that seemed buried under a sensibility that had become too literate, and, oh, those tedious reissues, Costello has always been cruel, or rather, he's never abandoned punk's sense of directness, of plainspokenness.
But that doesn't dull the excitement of When I Was Cruel, an album of taut, bilious rock that -- propelled, not coincidentally, by original Attractions members Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas -- has all the teetering-on-unhinged feel of Costello's very best work. Just about everywhere, he makes big ideas work with sharp, jabbing couplets. "Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat / Every breath that I held for you," Costello confesses on "45," a song that manages to juxtapose both an elegy for 45-rpm records and a soldier's post-WWII disillusionment. Costello's voice has rarely seemed so malleable, so Pop Art huge. He alternates among throaty warble, threatening whisper, and nasal taunt. But even those now-familiar facets of his voice bring a new sense of menace, especially on songs like "Spooky Girlfriend," where Costello spikily sings "I want a girl to turn my screw / To wind my watch, to buckle my shoe / And if she won't, her mother will do."
On the album's best song, "When I Was Cruel Part 2," Costello even pulls off a sample so sophisticated in its application that it's worthy of a great hip-hop or electronic-music producer. A voice -- lifted from an Italian pop song called "Un Bacio E Troppo Poco" -- coos "Un" after each of Costello's verses, wrapping around his voice so perfectly that it almost feels like it's talking to him. Ironically, Costello is as welcome now challenging a crowd of deadeningly conservative elder statesman as he was in the late seventies when he challenged both punk's simple-minded savants and mainstream rock's bloated bourgeoisie. When I Was Cruel reclaims the confrontational attitude -- manifested in the hip-hoppers and post-punkers of Glen E. Friedman's book Fuck You Heroes and Johnny Cash's legendary bird-flipping in 1969 at San Quentin -- as the highest of pop virtues.
When I Was Cruel.