Elvis Costello is not dead. He's just been reincarnated in stranger and stranger shapes over the course of his decades-long career: from punk and singer-songwriter to fusionist and haute artiste. With the just-released When I Was Cruel, Costello has reappeared in what seems to be, upon first listen, a retro-form: Elvis the rocker, the bilious nerd with the poison pen. We've missed that side of him. Sure, the last six years without a straight-up Costello album have been interesting. We've gotten collaborations with opera singers, jazz ensembles, and old-schoolers like Burt Bacharach. But Cruel is better, filled with both the coiled menace and rhythmic drive of his best early work, and the experimental edge his artsy wanderings have brought.
Critics will be tempted to say that Costello has reverted to his old ways, punching out rock songs with venomous lyrics and catchy hooks. But his period of musical exploration has indelibly altered his songwriting. Tango riffs, sampling, wild horn sections, and klezmer and blues influences rip through Cruel, adding unexpected twists and turns to the songs. Where lesser songwriters would create a muddle, Costello draws from these disparate influences to create something that sounds uniquely, superlatively his. His voice, once a nasal caterwaul, has both deepened and become more flexible in falsetto. And his singing has become more expressive -- growls, whispers, explosive consonants enunciated so harshly one can almost see the spit spraying.
Some things haven't changed. Namely, the snarly sensibility. Costello has always written lyrics with the zeal of the kid who got picked on the most in school. (At one point Costello said he carried a book filled with the names of everyone who had pissed him off, the better to exact his revenge.) That bristling outsider stance and sense of alienation sharpen his character studies of corrupt lawyers, sleazy celebrities, and high-society women.
Also the same is the dysfunctional bent he brings to his songs about relationships. "But if you do have to leave me/who will I have left to hate?" he yelled on the 1996 album All This Useless Beauty, perfectly capturing the image of two lovers in a clinch, too tired to wound each other further but too tired to let go. This time around he says, "I love you just as much as I hate your guts."
It's so deliciously messed up.
What's new about Cruel is the innovation Costello has made in his sound. "Spooky Girlfriend" moves along on a funky rhythm that would be fitting for the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. "When I Was Cruel No. 2," the album's centerpiece, features a loop from a song by Italian singer Mina. She says only one word, "Un...," but provides a kind of punctuation to the dark, dreamy, Portishead-ish song. Who would think that a one-word loop, Eric Satie piano samples, and lyrics about a trophy wife ("She was selling speedboats in a tradeshow when he met her") would be so hypnotic?
His rhythmic sense has become even stronger -- after the constraints of his collaborations, Costello set out to make a "rowdy rhythm album." Though it seems deceptively simple after some of the more thickly textured songs, "Tart" gains complexity through its bass line -- sly, spare, and taut. "Daddy Can I Turn This?" launches Costello and his band into a full-on roar. And "Episode of Blonde" plays like an unhinged tango, complete with piano, horn section, and combustible, rapped singing.
Not all the songs work this well. Too many goddamn words plague "Soul for Hire." Costello loves his metaphors, his occasionally incomprehensible images, and strings them together in this song without pause. "Alibi" seems reminiscent of "I Want You," Blood and Chocolate's masterpiece of obsessive, freakish love. But what was remarkable about "I Want You" was the way Costello could shade each repetition of the phrase "I want you" with a different meaning -- threat, raw need, desperation, danger. "Alibi," in contrast, builds too slowly and winds up sounding plain old boring.
Luckily, the misfires are few and far between. The vintage Costello -- the toxic tenderness, the distinctive hard-edged guitar playing -- is all there, but revolutionized by a richer range of sounds. Costello rants in "Episode of Blonde": "So you jumped back with alarm/Every Elvis has his Army/Every rattlesnake its charm/Can you still hear me?/Am I coming through just fine?" If this record is any indication, we'll be hearing Costello loud and clear for many years yet.