He is punk's literate effete, pop's manic panic, white-boy soul's doggerel lyricist, chintz's ornery bring-down, and jazz's dazzling dilettante. Despite the rumpled porkpie he fancies these days, Elvis Costello wears so many hats that he is practically a checkroom for modern rock. Over the course of his 25-year career, Costello has pushed his musical mind to a multitude of genre grindstones without lapsing in quality too often, and played by myriad sets of stylistic rules without hiding himself in the details. But don't let the rotating headgear fool you. Costello is, at bottom, just another one of Her Majesty's gross national products: the pissy rogue.
The typical Costelloisms flower on "When I Was Cruel," his latest release and first solo album proper in six years. "Spooky Girlfriend" resurrects his love/hate affair with the fairer sex -- a battle that approaches emotional S&M -- with such lines as "I want a girl to make amends/ To do no wrong she must confess/ And then perhaps hitch her dress." Album opener "45," a streamlined story about life going, going, gone -- as viewed from a life half spent -- cracks broken-mirror wordplay that could cause whiplash: "Bells are chiming and tears are falling/ it creeps up on you without a warning/ 45/ Every scratch every click every heartbeat/ every breath that I blessed -- I be lost -- I confess/ 45."
Elsewhere, Costello's pungent cynicism surfaces slowly in "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," a barroom rocker that mixes a young girl's playtime with a grown woman's frustrations in a manner that makes one indistinguishable from the other. When he seethes, "But if I've done something wrong there's no ifs and buts/ 'cause I love you just as much as I hate your guts," in "Alibi," small sentiments cast large shadows. And when his low-register warble chomps into these chewy lines, "Cruel"'s claws break skin and draw blood.
"Cruel" marks a return to the rough-and-tumble, rocking Costello, and that helps punch it into flesh. Reissue workhorse Rhino Records, in a wily move that reintroduces Costello in thematic groups, recently spit out a salvo of his previous bare-knuckle bouts. 1978's "This Year's Model," 1986's "Blood and Chocolate" and 1994's "Brutal Youth" still bear their defining growing pains. When compared to a career shaped by more subtle sophistication -- as heard on "Armed Forces," "Imperial Bedroom," "King of America," and his collaborations with Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet and the Mingus Big Band (on the recently released "Tonight at Noon . . . Three or Four Shades of Love") -- these three albums spot the garden of Costello's oeuvre like troublesome pests. But the raw exuberance of the rock & roll Costello plays is an ideal setting for his caustic observations and lyrical zingers, a talent that puts him firmly in the camp of snide Brit wits.
England's fascination with its creative types' flamboyant vindictiveness isn't hard to spot: see the 1980s lit-crit bad boys (Martin Amis, Graham Swift, Julian Barnes), Charles Saatchi's Young British Artists (Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Tracy Emin), and now the post-Zadie Smith crew of Young British Novelists (Hari Kunzru, Toby Litt). And as with those spheres of infamy/influence, Costello emerged in the late 1970s as a bird of a feather. Along with Joe Jackson and Graham Parker, he was an "angry young man" coming up from the pubs. Jackson and Parker shook the "anger" out of their work as their careers progressed; Costello kept his in his pocket.
His maliciousness hasn't mellowed either, even though what riles the now 47-year-old isn't what miffed the younger Liverpudlian; "Cruel" lacks "Model"'s youthful irresponsibility or Chocolate's confident soul-crush. What has changed is how the older-but-no-gentler Costello vents his spleen. Costello's genre-hopping 1980s output impressed with his nimble and multifaceted musical and lyrical gifts. But the sheer number of words in Costello songs were also intimidating; in recent memory, perhaps only Biggie Smalls could cram as many syllables and meanings into four minutes.
Today, the notorious E.L.V.I.S. has whittled down his verbal stakes to sleek stilettos, and he complements this lean language with a stripped-down sound, anchored by former Attractions Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve on keyboards. (Cracker bassist Davey Faragher rounds out the group.) The mood in "When I Was "Cruel" No. 2" is set by an almost Massive Attack-sparse rhythm track. "Alibi" lilts along to a wah-wah guitar texture and loping piano line over a relaxed beat. And "Tear Off Your Own Head" is a basic bass-drums-guitar blast with a scorching, distorted chug. In fact, a wide-tone tremolo guitar buzz is the sound that stays ringing in the ears even after the album closes.
Just don't bet the house on "Cruel" as a comeback cause cèlébre. Costellorati numerologists out there will note the clockwork-like eight-year spans between rocking Elvis outings. But die-hard critics/fans expect brilliance every time a new Costello release hits the shelves, and "Cruel" won't receive the return-to-top-of-game hosannas that Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" enjoyed from the week of its release to the end of last year. The upbeat brawlers bookend "Cruel," leaving its middle -- wherein Costello casts some of his most affecting emotional whirlpools on the album -- feeling a little languid, the sort of comedown that makes short attention spans cry, "Bummer." But don't sweat the small stuff. Costello's constant is the overall quality of his still prolific pen. And his forked tongue hasn't failed him yet.
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