When I was cruel
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Date: June 2003

When I Was Cruel

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When I Was Cruel
Elvis Costello
Mercury Records

Reviewed by Steve Tomkins

After seven years of collaborating with mezzo-sopranos and easy-listening legends, and no fewer than four ‘Best of’ releases, Costello has reread his job description. The king of bile is back, full of raucous energy, bitter word-twisting observation, and a bona fide rock and roll band including two-thirds of the Attractions. It is truly well worth the wait.

Costello was in the mood for ‘a rowdy rhythm record’ again, he says, and wrote the songs ‘with a Silvertone electric guitar, a 15-watt amplifier and a kid's beatbox with big orange buttons’. That rawness runs through the album, but leavened with some sophisticated arrangements, the currently obligatory technoloops and a horn section, creating a delightfully multi-textured soundscape.

With drum programme in the foreground, ‘Spooky Girlfriend’ provides the familiar sleaze, showcasing the fantasies of a record company executive.

In ‘Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a doll revolution)’, the sex object joyously turns the tables. Costello claims to have written it as the theme for a US TV show he was going to make, about a band of Russian supermodel secret agents trying to bankrupt America by wasting record company money - which would be a typical piece of self-mythologising, if it did not happen to be true.

The title track is a series of blurred, unflattering snapshots from a society wedding. Costello must be the only person who could write a line that is as innocuous on paper as ‘She was selling speedboats in a tradeshow when he met her’, and spit it out with such violence as to turn it into a squalid accusation.

‘Soul for Hire’, more accessible and more generous than most of his songs, glimpses a moment of crisis in a compelling moral drama, with a lawyer appalled by the failure of the justice system, and desparate ‘to be more than just a soul for hire’. ‘Speaking for myself,’ Costello sings, ‘I wouldn’t take the fame, the fees, the glory/For whoring in the practice of the law’, and surely the man who turned down Nike’s offer of a million pounds for the use of ‘Pump It Up’ is entitled to talk this way, more so than some of his more spiritual colleagues.

This review is published in association with Third Way magazine.