There's an elite group of aging musicians whose work defies the standard genres. Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave have all built their careers on unique sounds laid under strikingly original lyrics. With their emphasis on complicated wordplay and impressionistic or psychological scenarios, they've become the songwriters who never sold out: Elton John for people who take rock seriously.
Back in the early 1980s, Elvis Costello seemed destined to ascend into their ranks. With his punk-driven songs of angst, tempered with painful self-depreciation and social sadness, Costello racked up a dedicated contingent of fans in both Europe and America. But Costello wanted to be a star. And when he finally broke into the top of the American charts with the poppy, Paul McCartney-assisted "Veronica," Costello abandoned his angry-but-intelligent roots and started pursuing more widely palatable sound. The results - several songster collaborations with Burt Bacharach, a so-artsy-you-can-feel-it album with the Brodsky String Quartet - were as uncompelling as they were polished.
But just when you expected to see him in the next Pavarotti and Friends concert, Elvis Costello thwarted his own trend and released When I Was Cruel. From the first lines of the first song, "45," it becomes clear that Costello is going to be dealing with his musical past in this album. After singing "Bells are chiming for victory / There's a page back in history," the simple drum and guitar track breaks wide open, with guitar choruses wailing and Costello unloading his whiney, bitter, beautiful tenor. The old Elvis is back.
However, rather than completely abandon the lyrical world he had been inhabiting for the past decade, Costello redeems those bloodless works by capitalizing on their insight and the range they added to his voice. Now when he sings about wanting love to be a little nice sometimes (in the aching R & amp;B infused "Tart") he sounds genuinely hurt, rather than the old brand of frustrated.
Of course there are misses. The title track turns into a seven-minute myopic meditation on being famous, its self-pity barely undermined by the James Bond soundtrack. And "Dust" just rambles both musically and lyrically; nobody but the musicians cares. But these are nothing more than the failures of a major artist. Costello could do worse, and he has. Thank goodness he's gotten angry again.