Monday, August 26, 2002

Revisiting Elvis Costello's "When I Was Cruel"

I've been taking flak from "some people" (ahem), due to my negative opinion of Elvis Costello latest 'comeback' album: When I Was Cruel. Je me tiens accusé of dismissing it "on principle." Whoah. Being principled is too close to being predictable, in my book. So I decided I'd better sit myself down and make another attempt to hear the album - as George Michaels said - without prejudice. And I did, last evening. Here's my revisitation review. I tried to be objective. Honestly! After all, I was, I am, a fan.

I think I know why I had an earlier problem with the CD. I was letting the stinky songs dominate my opinion. I couldn't hear anything else. And for sure, there are some huge dumps on this one: Soul For Hire, Spooky Girlfriend, the title song, My Little Blue Window and worst of all, Dissolve. They all suffer from a sense of EC trying too hard to live up to his Clever Songwriter Role. Either they're too fussy, too busy, or they're simply silly.

* Dissolve: Obvious lyrical metaphors. Very unbecoming. Is it a protest song? A breakup song? I see EC at his breakfast table, dropping a tablet of sugar into his cup and going 'oooh, dissolving relationships.' The dissonant repetitive chord thing is trite. The huffing on the harmonica sounds like something I would do at karaoke. Yikes all around.

* My LIttle Blue Window: The verse melody echoes earlier EC; Blue Chair, maybe. The chorus is an entirely another matter. Horrid. Lyrically, there's an implication that he is aware of his listening audience. How we wait to hear him spout poetry and wisdom (we do / we did). Perhaps there's also something about him confessing not being able to bring the tune-smithing like he used to. Is he asking someone to take over; pick up the baton? Or is he saying he's counting on us to help him let him know what he's doing wrong? Either way, it comes across as a voice from above, talking down to the unwashed, the unclever.

* Soul For Hire: Musically, an attempt at atypical instrumentation, sounds and time signature. But as with too many of the songs on the disc, the vocal dominates the mix. The music is too oppressed, by the words. But that's a secondary peeve. The primary is this songs' subject: jaded jurisprudence? Wha? Why? Eh?

* Spooky Girlfriend: Yuck. Hate it. Any wonder why Kate is 'Of The Antarctic?' Shane MacGowan's auto-bio has some interesting perspectives on ol' EC, the ladies man.

* When I Was Cruel: Like Soul For Hire, this is a passionless morality play. The music bores me and the lauded-in-the-press ('so modern, so Naughts') repetitive sample tells me rock critics need to listen to more of todays' musicians. They'd be amazed by the likes of Cornelius, Enon, DJ QBert, Dan The Automator, etc, etc.

OK, breathe. Don't get mad at me. Next up are some of the things I like about the album!

* 45: almost a showcase for why Bruce Thomas is no longer here. The song fade is the best part of this song.

* Dust 2... ....Dust: Cute titling, looks good on the jacket and liner notes. Musically, I think I prefer ...Dust, over Dust 2... Lyrically-speaking, it goes along really well until we hit the Juggernaut part. Loose that verse and it's the standout track(s) on the album. Also his vocals are more natural. He sounds best when he isn't wearing his 'I Am A Singer' hat.

* Daddy Can I Turn This?: Blood & Chocolate-esque, EC's guitar playing borrowed from electric Neil Young; both good things. I think I'd like it even more if the band became totally unhinged. Tear it up. But that middle eight about the flashing lights seems orphaned. Otherwise, no prob.

In the 'mixed reviews' category:

* Tart: I was really enjoying the lyrical visuals of fruit in spanish gutters, but EC vocals get sort of whacked on this one. Nieve's keyboards open it nicely, but he leaves the studio during the verses. A little piano intermezzo would be welcome. Throughout this record, EC seems hesitant to let the band help him carry the weight.

* Alibi: Clever lyrics, but musically, this sounds like a tiny snippet, an afterthought, from Brutal Youth. This one would be as interesting to me as a spoken word piece.

* 15 Petals: The drums, bass and keys get a nice percolating syncopation going. Then, then, EC adds...a horn arrangement. The bubbling becomes bumbling. It turns the streamlined silverliner into something like a runaway gypsy wagon. But the scene is a hollywood version - you see the rails beneath the wagon. The wagon isn't really out of control, kids. Don't worry, everyone will be safe, by commercial. Enough! Roy Nathanson is right there, playing on this; I'll bet this could have been another song entirely if a horn man was allowed to do his thing. Lyrically, my first thought was 'cheapskate!' She oughta leave the deadbeat. But I've misunderstood lots of EC's lyrics in the past, so maybe I am again.

* Tear Off Your Own Head: Like Tart, I was merrily enjoying the Revolver-esque ride, listening to nice womanly empowering sentiments, using puppets and dolls very suitably. So why does he have to dumb it down with "You could make somebody a pretty little wife, But don't let anybody tell you how to live your life." Sheesh, uh yeah, EC, we got the message. To answer his much-older question: no, you don't need to draw us a diagram.

* Episode of Blonde: Maybe more here than meets the eye. Which is risky business for me and I'm glad Mr. Costello can still make me feel slightly uncomfortable. However, it also might not be that dangerous and therefore it gets a mixed review placement. I know, I'm not being specific in my distaste..probably not fair...I'm far from perfect....

* Radio Silence: This should have been *The Song.* It's clearly echoing and updating the sentiments within the once monster 'Radio Radio.' Not only has radio died, it's not even human anymore. Why not another call to arms? EC, lead us to the walls of Jericho and a mighty horn we shall blow. But....oops, he forgot to bring it. His vocal is sing-songy and there's barely a melody here, let alone a marching anthem. Maybe that's the point - 'signal fading, listen to what I'm saying.' It's too late to rush the radio ramparts. Guess EC is already past the point of no return. Also, how much of the songs' sentiment is "Play Me" and not "Play Some Real Music." In Radio Radio, he was saying kinda the same double message; only then he was making real music. The two requests were interchangable. Interesting that now there seems to be a distinction. He says, 'From this distance, it's hard to tell the difference between a poet and a hack.' And the furthest distance is the one pointing

All in all, not a record I will listen to in the PM. Maybe in the morning, while I'm still trying to sort of what's going on with the day. There are no answers on 'Cruella,' but confusion is well served.


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