My seventh best album of 2002 is the 21st studio album by Elvis Costello. The famously prolific Costello has released nine more albums since, though his current three-year absence is uncharacteristic.
Costello has released few perfect albums over his four-decade career (three or four by my count) but every one of his releases is distinctive. Sometimes it’s a genre play (country, classical, adult contemporary), others a thematic one (the childhood nostalgia of Brutal Youth or the short story forming the spine of The Delivery Man).
When I Was Cruel is full of great, off-kilter songs, from the title track (which samples a vocal snippet from a French song in a loop), ‘My Little Blue Window’ (a track I’d call country only to be loudly contradicted by regular readers of this blog) and the blistering ‘Daddy Can I Turn This?,’ which got its title from the purported final words heard on the black box recording from a crashed plane in which the pilot’s child was accompanying him in the cockpit.
One of the oddest, and best, songs on When I Was Cruel is the late-album spoken-word diatribe ‘Episode of Blonde.’ Costello rips into this beauty like a beat poet on open-mic night, spewing the verses like acid.
Three years after his Burt Bacharach collaboration, Elvis Costello released 2001’s For the Stars, an album recorded with Swedish soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter. And there was a great disturbance in the Force, as hordes of Elvis Costello fans sighed and rolled their eyes.
Branching out into new musical directions is one thing, but when a one-time punk star puts out his second album of easy listening material that would fit nicely in your grandmother’s CD collection, there’s a problem.
When would Costello rock again?
Four 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.