"When I Was Cruel"
It's incredible how every reviewer and his uncle can manage to jump on the same collective bandwagon of ignorance when reviewing a new work of art. Moreover, it's amazing how many critics and fans want an artist to keep releasing the same record over time, and how they begin to squirm when said artist veers off into other territory. One of the most annoying new buzz phrases in recent years is "return to form!" It's a phrase that essentially signifies nothing, but is used in critical circles as a means of proclaiming that the artist in question has somehow returned to the original sound—or quality of output—that they have apparently abandoned over time. My question is this: how does one "return to form" when one has based their entire career on constantly changing form?
The latest album to receive this backhanded accolade by critics is "When I Was Cruel." And the ignorance abounds: "First guitar-dominated album since 'My Aim Is True'!" (not true: his first quasi-Attractions reunion album, 1994's "Brutal Youth" is quite guitar heavy); "the next 'This Years Model'!" (when not one song—even the rock tunes—*really* sound anything like it); "a new rock record!" (when in truth most of the album is far too diverse to pigeonhole it in such a manner); and of course, my favorite, the aforementioned "return to form!" What these critics would realize, if they all took the time to actually listen to Costello's music, is that Costello has been a chameleonic artist from day one, engaging in, for the most part, quite satisfying experiments in classical, country, jazz, folk, world, soul, chamber pop, electronic and a number of other genres. (We're talking about a guy here who, as early on as his fourth record "Get Happy!!," temporarily abandoned traditional "rock" entirely in favor of a Motown/Stax influenced sound). What's most irritating to me about the "return to form!" declarations is that it basically discredits anything the man has done in the past, oh, 15 years or so as weak and compromised (much of which has been highly competent, interesting and accomplished work, no less). It also accuses the artist of basically only being good at one thing, trying to keep them mired in the past. But, in my opinion, any artist worth their salt will constantly reinvent themselves.
To my ears, "When I Was Cruel" is far too complex to be deemed a "rock record." In fact, with its splendid variety of sounds, it seems to transcend that very genre. Costello himself will tell you that the new record is too diverse and complicated to be closely allied with such works as "This Years Model." There is no doubt that he knows it is indeed edgy, and that it contains some of his hardest rocking songs in years (Costello carefully dubs the album a "rowdy rhythm record"), but what it is is not "This Years Model: Part II". What it is is something uniquely Costello and, like just about everything else in the man's immense canon of work, something different. Most importantly, "When I Was Cruel" is something really quite wonderful.
The man gazes at you in half silhouette from the back cover, a-la Robert Freeman's breathtaking cover photo of "With The Beatles." Here is Costello, matured, but still partially obscured. While there are moments of sunshine here and there, and also a few nods to the past, the soul of "When I Was Cruel" lies somewhere in the darkness, and in the future. Moreover, the rear shot (and other promo shots for the album) seems to reveal that much of the album hangs under a sort of Film Noir cloud, both thematically and musically, which gives the album a very interesting and unique mood and color.
There are several things that set it apart from a "This Years Model" or a "Blood And Chocolate." While his targets do tend to be the same as in his youth (relationships, the media), Costello's had a lot more to say in recent years, and much of it isn't black or white nor easily ingested. The back cover hints at this: the familiar looking Costello, clad in hornrimmed glasses, but sporting facial hair and wearing a slight grin. Certainly a bit of a departure from the beheaded jester Costello of "Spike," the open-mouthed screaming Costello of "Blood And Chocolate," the maturing but unamused headmaster look from "Imperial Bedroom," or the scowler of "My Aim Is True."
Another thing that sets this record apart from others is the variety of sounds contained within. Brass, synth noises, drum loops, foreign instruments and samples abound. While 2/3rds of the Attractions return, pianist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas (bass duties are covered by Cracker bassist Davey Faragher), this is clearly not an "Attractions" record. The only reviewer to hit it even remotely close thus far pegged the record as a hybrid between 1986's "Blood And Chocolate" (Costello's skeletal and jagged first final bow with the Attractions), and 1989's "Spike" (Costello's eclectic first solo record from 1989). A case could be made that it is a sequel to his unofficial trilogy of "rowdy rhythm records": "This Years Model," "Blood And Chocolate" and "Brutal Youth." But while the ethos might be similar, the sound is simply too different to pigeonhole.
"45," Costello's present to himself on his 45th birthday, is a fascinating look at the record industry and its impact on legions of listeners (particularly a once young fellow named Declan MacManus). It's based on a double entendre—45 as an age and as the RPM's of a "single" record—and is one of the more straightforward rock moments on the album. Bassist Davey Faragher has some absolutely beautiful descending bass lines that recall former Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas. But as early as track two, we're already moving into different territory. Hinged on a funky drum part that sounds as if it could be a loop, the mood of "Spooky Girlfriend" is downright…well…spooky. We get our first taste of the brass section, and the bass, playing fifths for the majority, slithers underneath like a serpent.
The single, "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution)" does hearken the past, but more "Brutal Youth"—Costello's first quasi-Attractions reunion album—than "This Years Model." The phasing on the bass takes the song into another interesting territory that's relatively unchartered for Costello: psychedelia.
Perhaps the most retro moment on the record is the superb "Alibi," a seven minute opus in which Elvis spews out venomously every conceivable alibi you know, all to a backing that sounds like the distant cousin of "I Want You" off of "Blood And Chocolate." It is a rare moment in that, lyrically, it features a more prosaic Costello, and musically does not hesitate to look to the past for its references. (In fact, it was recorded in one take…much like its cousin "I Want You." Coincidence?)
"When I Was Cruel No. 2" is arguably the highlight of the album…maybe even one of Costello's finest songs ever. The song commences with what sounds like an overdriven synth bass with an odd effect on it. With a slow groove and exotic backing based on a sample from opera singer Mina (which includes exactly one syllable of lyrics), the mood is seedy and breathtaking. The lead guitar gives the song a Noir-ish atmosphere, and Nieve's tasteful piano fills are mesmerizing in their simplicity. Costello's lyrics are extraordinarily colorful, as the speaker ruefully observes a gaggle of phony and materialistic people in a scenario that seems like a Hollywood wedding. "But it was so much easier when I was cruel," laments the older and wiser Costello. The song is a staggering seven minutes long, though you'd hardly notice.
For anyone believing the ciritics who claim that this album is doused in the venom that characterizes much of Costello's earlier work, there are no less than two overt love songs to his wife Cait on the record. The first of these, "15 Petals," is an incredible experiment with Latin rhythms and guitar playing, featuring a slightly Middle Eastern melody sung by Costello with aplomb. The brass section shows up to add some colorful, strident licks that really kick the song into high gear. The second of these is "My Little Blue Window," a very straight forward rock song driven by an acoustic guitar. It's a pretty direct "thank you" to Cait, but still reveals a complex man underneath who still leans towards the melancholy from time to time. For Costello sings "The poison fountain pen now requires the antidote," but in the next he cautions "If I avert your gaze/And I should become a shrinking flower/Just punch me on the arm."
"Episode Of Blonde" is an amazing, swirling jazz experiment, hearkening Costello's "Clubland" off of his 1981 album "Trust." It's another cataloging experiment of the evils of the world, akin to "Tokyo Storm Warning" off of "Blood And Chocolate." Costello sing-speaks the verses like a demented fairground barker and Nieve's tinkly piano takes the song into night club territory, while the dirty brass punches in and out for the duration. It might be the most overt example of Costello's fondness for fellow bent singer/songwriter Tom Waits, a fondness that hasn't really surfaced in earnest since Costello's "Spike" album (in which Waits' guitarist Marc Ribot figured in pretty heavily). It might also be the most daring moment on the album…particularly for Costello's long time fans.
What all this adds up to is something that simply must be heard to be believed. Don't believe the hackneyed critics, with their simplistic "return to form!"/"next 'This Years Model'" pablum. What "When I Was Cruel" is is a dark, textured work, probably Costello's most diverse record since "Mighty Like A Rose," one of his more consistent releases and living proof that Elvis still contains a fair amount of venom, vim and vigor. But most importantly, it shows that Costello simply refuses to record the same album over and over again. Take it at that and listen for yourself.
© 2002 Crapple Records, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Crapple Records, Inc.
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