Song of the Day #272: ‘When I Was Cruel No. 2’ – Elvis Costello

cruelFour years after Painted From Memory, six years after All This Useless Beauty and eight years after Brutal Youth, Costello finally released another rock-n-roll album.

I probably rate When I Was Cruel even higher than it deserves because it was so welcome after such a long dry spell. When you’ve been in the desert, even dirty water tastes like Evian. Not that When I Was Cruel is tainted it any way — it’s a masterful piece of work. But it was also exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.

The album contains some of Costello’s best songwriting since Spike, including little-known gems such as ‘Episode of Blonde,’ ‘Spooky Girlfriend,’ ‘Tart,’ ‘My Little Blue Window’ and today’s song. The production is also first-rate, veering into electronica and even hip-hop flavors at times. This album shows Costello keeping up with the musical times much more effectively than he did on Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World.

‘When I Was Cruel No. 2’ is a great example of a new sound for Costello that nonetheless contains all of his trademarks. The weird distorted bass that opens the song, the lurching drumbeat bed, the sampled French woman’s clipped vocal that repeats on a loop — these aren’t like anything on any Costello song before. But the lyrics and delivery? Vintage Elvis.

I particularly like the final verse, which recounts an (imagined) encounter between a rock journalist and Costello, with the former recalling when they first met and Elvis was “a spoilt child… with a record to plug.” He goes on, “Things haven’t really changed that much, one of us is still getting paid too much.” I love it!

Note: This clip contains the full album version (for a change) as well as a bonus song (‘Smile’) which didn’t appear on the album.

I exit through the spotlight glare
I stepped out into thin air
Into a perfume so rarefied
“Here comes the bride”

Not quite aside, they snide “She’s number four”
“There’s number three just by the door”
Those in the know, don’t even flatter her,
They go one better
“She was selling speedboats in a tradeshow when he met her”

Look at her now
She’s starting to yawn
She looks like she was born to it
But it was so much easier
When I was cruel

She reaches out her arms to me
Imploring: “Another melody?”
So she can dance her husband out on the floor
The captains of industry just lie there where they fall

In eau-de-nil and pale carnation creation
A satin sash and velvet elevation
She straightens the tipsy head-dress of her spouse
While hers recalls a honey house

There’ll be no sorrows left to drown
Early in the morning in your evening gown
But it was so much easier
When I was cruel

The entrance hall was arranged with hostesses and ushers
Who turned out to be the younger wives nursing schoolgirl crushes
Parting the waves of those few feint friends
Fingers once offered are now too heavy to extend

The ghostly first wife glides up stage whispering to raucous talkers
Spilling family secrets out to flunkeys and castrato walkers
See that girl
Watch that scene
Digging the “Dancing Queen”

Two newspaper editors like playground sneaks
Running the book on which of them is going to last the week
One of them calls to me
And he says, “I know you”
“You gave me this tattoo back in ’82”
“You were a spoilt child then with a record to plug”
“And I was a shaven headed seaside thug”
“Things haven’t really changed that much”
“One of us is still getting paid too much”

There are some things I can’t report
The memory of his last retort
But it was so much easier
When I was cruel

Look at me now
She’s starting to yawn
She looks like she was born to it
Ah, but it was so much easier
When I was cruel

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #272: ‘When I Was Cruel No. 2’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Dana says:

    I agree with you that this is a great album and great song from that album. And what is that French woman saying anyway?

    Hearing this song reminds me that it has been far too long since I heard this album, and makes me want to pop that CD right into the car stereo!

  2. Amy says:

    Dana reminded me tonight that this was the album that contained “Spooky Girlfriend,” when I told him I didn’t think I knew much on either of the last two albums you had featured. While I like this song, it is “Spooky Girlfriend,” and, particularly, Costello’s performace of it when we saw him in concert, that completely captivates me. His live performance of that song may be one of my favorite musical experiences of all time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.